Kevin Macdonald on his Guantanamo Bay film and upcoming Oprah documentary

Kevin Macdonald tells Esther McCarthy about his new movie, The Mauritanian, which is the true story of a Guantanamo Bay detainee
Kevin Macdonald on his Guantanamo Bay film and upcoming Oprah documentary

Jodie Foster stars in The Mauritanian.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi spent 14 years in Guantanamo Bay detention camp without charge, from 2002 until his release in 2016. While there, he wrote a shocking memoir about his experiences, which became an international bestseller.

Now the story of the man from Mauritania, west Africa, is being told on screen.

Acclaimed Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald has assembled a strong cast for The Mauritanian including Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley and A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim as Slahi.

Speaking to the real-life man who spent 14 years in Guantanamo Bay, who was filled with good humour and humanity despite his imprisonment, persuaded him to take on the film, Macdonald said.

“His book [Guantanamo Diary] is an amazing document. It’s got some beautiful writing in it. But I couldn’t see what the film was.

“It was when I met him on Skype and talked to him I was so bowled over by his humanity. It’s particularly in light of what you read about in the book, what had happened to him. I thought that’s a film about the war on terror that I want to see — the effect on a real human being of false imprisonment and injustice.

“We’ve only ever seen that period of history in cinema told from the other point of view.”

Slahi had fought alongside men in the Afghanistan insurrection who joined al-Qaeda, but said he renounced the group in the 1990s. He turned himself in for questioning in his home country following 9/11 and was brought to Jordan and later Guantanamo.

His memoir — and the film — dramatises the torture he experienced, including waterboarding, isolation, beatings, sexual humiliation and death threats. It also tells of US attorney Nancy Hollander’s (Foster) battle to have him charged or freed.

“When I spoke to Mohamedou, which was in 2017, he’d been out for about a year,” said Macdonald. “It was still very fresh. That’s one of the things that I think surprises people — we think of that now as a historical period, almost. But actually, it’s still ongoing.

“He’s only been out now for less than five years. There still are 40-something prisoners in Guantanamo. The shadow of this period is still very much with us.”

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Mauritanian.
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Mauritanian.

Unsurprisingly, such a topical movie proved challenging to finance, and it took several years before the cameras started rolling.

“There were two big challenges in this film. One was getting the script right to tell such a complex story, with so many different points of view and that spans a long period of time — trying to find a simple way to thread the story all into one two-hour movie.

“The other one was financing it. How do you get people to make a film about Guantanamo?

“We loaded on the stars, and I was really lucky in that we managed to get a swathe of incredible actors. Often when those demands are made on you by financiers, ‘we need more stars’, it leads to the kind of dreaded euro pudding — a film which has a bunch of actors in it who aren’t the right actors for the roles.

“We ended up with a cast who I couldn’t imagine anyone being better in any of those roles. But they also happen to be big stars. So that’s a rarity, certainly a first in my career.”

French/Algerian actor Tahar Rahim, so good in his breakthrough role in prison drama A Prophet, again shows the sheer extent of his range here, as authorities aim to torture him into a confession.

“I think that part of it is because he and I spoke about this for two years before,” observed Macdonald.

“He was on board from very early on. And I think it meant, as you’d expect, a lot to him to do this part.

“To play a fully humanised, sympathetic Muslim man in this world is a big political statement. He took that very seriously.

“This is more than just about a part for him. This was something that had real significance.”

Having spoken many times about his experiences, Rahim and Slahi finally got to meet in person when the latter visited the set during shooting in South Africa. It was an emotional meeting and the men embraced.

However, for Slahi, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, being on set when some of the Guantanamo scenes were being filmed was an overwhelming experience.

“Even just talking to him about some of the bad times, you can see he turns inwards, he starts to twitch a bit, his face falls.

“He actually couldn’t bear being there for more than about half an hour. I think it was just all too real.”

Director Kevin MacDonald had his first big breakthrough with 2003's Touching the Void.  
Director Kevin MacDonald had his first big breakthrough with 2003's Touching the Void.  

Since his big breakthrough with 2003’s Touching the Void, Macdonald has made high-profile dramas, while always returning to his documentary-making roots.

For every movie like the Last King of Scotland, he has documented the lives of people such as Whitney Huston.

“I tend to try and do a documentary after I’ve done a bit of drama. I find doing a drama, particularly a feature film, is such an exhausting, all-encompassing thing.

“With documentary, it’s a different kind of filmmaking. The stakes are lower, there are smaller crews, less money — it’s a palate cleanser in a way.

“I come from documentaries. I love being nosy and curious and asking people questions,” Macdonald said.

“The standing of documentaries has shifted a lot, partly thanks to the streamers actually, but also because the feature documentary phenomenon has really changed the way people see documentaries.”

His next palate cleanser will be one of his most anticipated yet — he will be making a documentary about US media queen Oprah Winfrey.

The TV icon is on board with the film and has been giving Macdonald access to anyone he wants to talk to. While it’s early days, the prospect of Winfrey’s life coming to screen is an interesting one.

“I was fascinated by the fact that here’s this woman, who’s the most powerful person in showbiz for 34 years in America, certainly the most powerful woman, the first black billionaire in America.

“The cultural impact she’s had is so enormous, but it’s been utterly unanalysed. And so it seems like there’s a story to be told there.

“She is so used to being on the other end of it, asking the questions. For me, it’s been quite an intimidating thing so far,” he smiled.

“The couple of times I have interviewed her, trying to try to do all the tricks that you do, consciously or unconsciously, with somebody you’re talking to to get them to relax and open up. And you can sense that sees them all coming from 50 miles away.”

The Mauritanian is on Amazon Prime from April 1.

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