One Day In September back in 2000. Also, his tryst with mainstream cinema has earned him accolades. Case in point:
The Last King of Scotland (2006) has won multiple awards, including the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. With the subject of his recent release
The Mauritanian, based on the real-life story of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner named Mohamedou Ould Slahi held without a trial for 14 years in the US, Macdonald chose to do a pure, hard-hitting and intense drama. In a virtual roundtable, Macdonald spoke about how his interaction with the real-life Mohamedou boggled his mind and why Tahar Rahim, who essayed him on screen, gave him the shivers. Read on:
We are living in a time where there’s a lot of hatred of all kinds, so what’s the message you hope to impart through The Mauritanian?
Well, I think it’s a message of human understanding. And, for me, the reason I made this film —to begin with — was because I spoke to Mohamedou. And instead of being a broken man, an angry man, which is what I expected to meet, he was a man filled with warmth, humour and forgiveness about what had happened to him. He still fights to forgive, which is amazing. Every day, he wakes up and goes, ‘I’m not going to be consumed by hatred.’ And I find that so impressive. I also find this humanity just so interesting.
In one of your interviews, you had said that this is not just about one man, and that there are three heroes in your courtroom drama — Nancy Hollander, the lawyer defending Mohamedou in court, and Stuart ‘Stu’ Couch, the American Navy veteran prosecuting Mohamedou and of course, Mohmedou himself? Why was it important for you to put the spotlight on all three characters, instead of focussing on just one?
My dominant character is obviously Mohamedou. He accounts for over 50% of the screen time. The other two characters represent the two sides of modern America, and the two different viewpoints that people had about why Guantanamo was happening. It was important to make a film that wasn’t just again saying that the Bush administration was terrible, and this very obvious kind of blaming of one person and one side. Also, to get people to watch this film, I needed movie stars because it is a very, very hard subject to get people to watch. And so it was important for me to also have roles, which were substantial enough that I could attract movie stars who would help me get it financed and monetised (
It is believed that Tahar Rahim had requested that he be tied in shackles, because he wanted to understand the plight of the man who had actually experienced it. So, how is it working with an actor who was so invested in his character?
One of the things about Tahar is that he’s a lovely, lovely and a sweet guy (grins!). And when he works, he turns into something else — he turns into this much-focused person. Tahar asked to be shackled in order to understand a little bit about the psychology of Mohamedou and the situation he was in. He needed to have some small similarities in his experience, so he would always make the room (we were shooting in) freezing cold with air conditioning. He wasn’t eating really at all during the whole filming so that he could get thinner and thinner… He would eat like two eggs, smoke cigarettes and drink 10 espressos like a real Frenchman (chuckles!). And then he was getting weaker and weaker and thinner and thinner. He would want to be in real shackles which sounds like not very much, but I will tell you the thing about these chains, which were real by the way, is that within five minutes your legs start to bleed. I would get very worried about him, but he would insist and say, ‘No, I need to do just this little thing. It’s not that bad. Mohamedou did this for 14 years. I can do it for a few days.’ And I think that’s the part why Tahar has given such a wonderful performance. It’s so deep. You know, there is the lightness, there is the warmth, but there is also the anger.
This idea of the rule of law, of course, became quite a lot more urgent over the last four years. But was that something that connected with you while you were working on this project as well?
Absolutely, because I don’t think this was a problem that just disappeared, vanished after the (George) Bush administration. And, so yes, Trump and his attempt to an even maybe my own government here in the UK, their attempts to subvert norms and standards of law, not to maybe to the extent of what happened at Guantanamo, where people were denied their basic legal rights to cancel the rights to not be imprisoned without charge, etc. But yes, that is a problem, which seems to be more and more prevalent, the lack of respect for the rule of law. But I also think that, for me, it was important to make a film, as I say, that was about humanising everybody involved. So because that’s what Mohamedou does. In his book, he even humanises the people who tortured him. And so he wants to understand why would you do that? Where did you come from? That why would you want to do that? Are you proud of what you did? And he asks those questions in his book. And I think some people in seeing this film find it harder to empathise with the Republican Christian – referring to the character of Stuart Couch played by Benedict Cumberbatch – than they do with Rahim’s Mohamedou. Because people seem to expect that if you have a Republican Christian character as a military man that he’s going to be the bad guy. In this case, he’s not the bad guy. He’s a decent man, who realises that there’s a terrible corruption within the system that he’s a part of and is brave enough to stand up and say no. And to me that was a fascinating character who I hadn’t seen before, you know, the evangelical Christian who has his decency intact.
About the ending: we the audience and even he (Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Salahi) thinks he has won the case. And then there is the text that says that he was in the prison for six or seven more years. Why did you end the film there? And what happened afterwards? Why couldn’t he get out?
Well, he couldn’t get out because the Obama administration appealed the case, on various technicalities; because I think they did not want the public relations problem of releasing him. Because after he was – it was the heaviest case that had ever happened related to 9/11 – and he won, and the speech that he gives is very similar to the speech that the real Mohamedou gave. We didn’t change it very much. When he won that, there were newspaper articles in America, you know, that said they were releasing the man responsible for 9/11. And Obama, of course, didn’t promise to close Guantanamo. And he didn’t, because it was too much political capital to do it. He really obviously wanted to, but his own party wouldn’t go along with him. And he instead decided to spend that political capital elsewhere. So I’m hoping that Biden will close it. But what happened to Mohamedou was he spent seven years fighting to get out and his lawyers went to see him every month, and they became very close. And Nancy and Terry (played by Shailene Woodley), they spent hours and hours together cooking, exercising whatever in his little cell. And so now, it’s very beautiful to see them together because they are like a family. And they’re bonded in a way which is really, really unusual and very, very touching. And, of course, he was working on getting the book published. A lot of time was spent trying to get the book published. There are a lot of legal shenanigans; the government wouldn’t let it be published.And they had to go through a whole load of regulations.
We have heard that Mohamedou had watched your film in prison, ‘The Last King of Scotland’, is that true?
Yes, that’s what he had told me. He might have just been being nice to me. But, yes, he saw it. But you know, he watched a lot of movies after he had ‘confessed’; he was allowed to access to a DVD player. And he watched many movies. And that’s how he partly learned several languages and actually improved his English. And I’m sure you’ve also read that ‘The Big Lebowski’ was his favourite movie. And so he’s very sophisticated (grins). And usually, you have a lot of trouble with getting them to understand why you’ve changed something, or why this particular character can appear, Mohamedou got all those things immediately. He’s very sophisticated viewer in that way.
But with regards to the movie stars, when you’ve worked in documentary as well as fiction, could you go into the details pertaining to whether there was a choice between making a fiction film, in this case, or another documentary, which could have worked with this subject just fine?
Well, I think you could make a documentary about this subject matter. But, obviously, you would always be at a distance from it. And, I think, for me, one of the things is that we’ve all heard about what happened at Guantanamo. We’ve all intellectually maybe understood that. But it’s very different than actually in a movie feeling for somebody and seeing them go through something. And you can do things in fiction, or in drama that you can’t do in documentary, like the sequence we’re talking about to go inside somebody’s head, like the torture sequence. So I think a documentary on the subject would have been interesting, but I don’t think it would have the impact or reach the people who want this film to reach, which is, you know, talking about movie stars, you have movie stars in this film, in order for people to be drawn to who would not normally be drawn to it, because they will think oh, it’s also entertaining. And I hope the film is also – other than being about a serious subject –an entertaining watch. And that you’re not just there because you have to take your medicine (