14 years a detainee

Mike Phipps reviews The Mauritanian (2021)

Mohamedou Ould Salahi was detained in his home country of Mauritania in the aftermath of 9/11. Three years later, he was ‘discovered’ to be in Guantánamo Bay, having been rendered by the CIA to Jordan and Afghanistan in the meantime.  This film is about the struggle for his freedom.

At his first meeting with the US legal team that will undertake his defence, he says he has been interrogated for eighteen hours a day for the last three years. What this means in practice only emerges in the last third of the film.

The interrogation techniques used included stress positions, sleep deprivation, water torture, mock execution, sexual humiliation and a threat to have his mother brought to Guantánamo and raped. These methods were authorised at the highest level of the Bush Administration and have since been classified as torture. They were used to successfully extract a ‘confession’ from Salahi that would lead prosecutors to call for the death penalty when his case came to trial.

Salahi wrote a memoir of his experiences in prison which was eventually published as Guantánamo Diary in 2015 and became an international bestseller. It is on this that the film is based.

The Mauritanian focuses on the efforts of both his legal team and the prosecutors to mount their legal cases. It is intelligently scripted and superbly acted, with a Hollywood cast that includes Jodie Foster as defence attorney Nancy Hollander.  Benedict Cumberbatch plays the military prosecutor who refuses to pursue the case when he learns of the circumstances under which Salahi’s ‘confession’ has been obtained.

But the outstanding performance is Salahi himself, played convincingly by Tahar Rahim, who starred in the award-winning 2009 French movie A Prophet.

Salahi himself took part in publicity interviews when the film was released, which was courageous given the trauma he suffered at the hands of his accusers, which still haunts him today.

Parts of the film are harrowing to watch. The portrayal of conditions at Guantánamo is especially convincing and the film is all the more intriguing due to the complexity of Salahi’s character.

The film pretty much ends in 2010 when Salahi wins his case, with a judge ordering his immediate release. It’s a victory for the rule of law, which is the central idea of the film, more important than the political choices of the detainee.

But the Obama Administration – which had promised, but failed, to close down the detention camp – appealed the verdict.  Salahi spent a further seven years in jail, only being released in 2016 after 14 years detention in total.

The Mauritanian does not cover this, nor the US Defense Department’s efforts as late as 2014 to subject Salahi to further interrogations, barred by the court. The pressure included the seizure of his privileged legal papers and comfort items.

There are still forty men in Guantánamo today. Most have never even been charged with crimes. Six have been cleared to leave, yet the government has made no efforts to transfer them out of the prison. President Biden has pledged to launch a review into closing Guantánamo Bay, but as the inaction of the Obama Administration on this underlines, there will be little domestic pressure on him to deliver on this.

I would encourage people to see this film. It has the strengths and weaknesses of a Hollywood production, with perhaps too much focus on the moral dilemmas of the US lawyers, but it pulls no punches on the reality of indefinite detention.

Readers should certainly ignore the dismissive two star review of the film by the Guardian’s jaded movie critic Peter Bradshaw, which could have been written without even glancing at the screen. Self-congratulatory “fence-sitting” this film is not.

I would also urge people to work for the closure of Guantánamo Bay. There are several campaigning ideas here.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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