The Mauritanian – Writing a true story of an extraordinary man who published a memoir while imprisoned

Slahi was prohibited from receiving a copy of his published book while he was incarcerated. “Although many Guantanamo former prisoners have written books, Mohamedou is the only one who’s authored his own book: “I think that’s what makes it so unique because it’s him, and it’s what he went through that we can now portray in a film,” says Nancy Hollander, who was his lawyer.

The Mauritanian follows the remarkable true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) who was captured by the U.S. government and imprisoned for years without trial at Guantanamo Bay (GTMO). It is an inspiring account of survival against all odds as Slahi, in his fight for freedom, finds allies in defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). Through Nancy and Teri’s controversial advocacy and evidence uncovered by formidable military prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a shocking and far-reaching conspiracy is revealed. The Mauritanianis a commentary on the importance of the Rule of Law and extremism of all kinds, but is also a tender, funny, uplifting film about Mohamedou, an extraordinary man whose humanity triumphed, leaving those around him profoundly changed.

When ‘Guantánamo Diary’ went on to be published in the U.K. in 2015 by Jamie Byng from Canongate, Benedict Cumberbatch read a passage from this brilliant book and instantly fell in love with it, wanted to produce the film with Adam Ackland and Leah Clarke for their company SunnyMarch, alongside Lloyd Levin and Beatriz Levin for Shadowplay Features, Mark Holder and Christine Holder through their newly formed venture Wonder Street, and Michael Bronner for Curlyhead Films, and Branwen Prestwood-Smith.

Slahi’s memoir ‘Guantánamo Diary’ was optioned by producers Lloyd Levin and Beatriz Levin, and Mark Holder and Christine Holder of Wonder Street. Producers Lloyd and Beatriz Levin and Michael Bronner traveled to Albuquerque to meet with Slahi’s lawyers, Nancy Hollander and Theresa Duncan.

“When we read ‘Guantanamo Diary’ we were surprised by the wit, poetry and wisdom of Mohamedou’s writing and moved by his story, and felt Mohamedou’s innate humanity and impulse to see that what we all have in common is greater than what divides us, despite his brutal and unjust experience, was inspiring, timely and would make for an important movie,” says Lloyd.

After Benedict Cumberbatch read a passage from this brilliant book, he fell in love with it and wanted to make the film. “I picked the book up and read it from the beginning to end and was just blown away by Mohamedou, by his humanity and his humor, his extraordinary endurance, the fact that he came through all of this and emerged to teach us all something about the indefatigable joy of the human spirit. I was utterly charmed by him and his story was heart-breaking and troubling.”

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, left, with the film’s director, Kevin Macdonald, and Slahi’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander.

The screenplay for The Mauritanian is penned by M.B. Traven, and Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshirvani (The Informer). The Screen Story is written by M.B. Traven.

Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani met in their first Screenwriting class at Columbia University’s MFA program in New York. They soon bonded over a shared creative vision that was informed by their international backgrounds – Sohrab was born in Iran, and Rory hails from the UK. Their original TV series, The Informer was broadcast on Amazon and BBC 1 and nominated for best drama series at the 2019 BAFTAs.

Writers Sohrab Noshirvani & Rory Haines were quick to point out just how invaluable having access to Mohamedou was, with Noshirvani saying “it’s his story and just speaking on the phone to him or on Skype you can get a sense of what a man he is and who he is but more than that he knows the process – he lived it – so we could not have done it without him and his input. If this was based on a newspaper article you would not have been able to do it because his book is so insightful and I don’t just mean in the way he talks about what Guantanamo looked like but the emotions ‘Hey this is what it’s like to be ripped apart and ripped from your family and taken to some place you have no idea where you are and the kind of horrors that he lived through.”

Slahi, who is the first detainee to publish a memoir while imprisoned, was prohibited from receiving a copy of his published book while he was incarcerated. (Real) Nancy Hollander, says that although many Guantanamo former prisoners have written books, Mohamedou is the only one who’s authored his own book: “I think that’s what makes it so unique because it’s him, and it’s what he went through that we can now portray in a film.”

Hollander was involved in the screenplay from the start and recalls, “I provided the filmmakers with the transcripts of hearings, I explained the law to them and the case, and I said that ‘I know you can’t include everything but I want you to know what really happened and then you can decide how you’re going to put this into a movie’.”

“Our movie isn’t a direct adaptation of the book, the book is Mohamedou’s autobiography so he can’t tell the story from the other perspectives. We cover the first two thirds of the story, until his appeal,” Clarke explains

“They are always difficult, especially if they’re near history because you have a responsibility to everybody and it’s a hot button subject” explains Clarke. “We didn’t want a grim, liberal telling off. It had to be a human drama where the audience could have an experience that changes them and is a talking point. The story is driven by Mohamedou who is a transcendent person, a philosopher, he’s so witty and so compassionate and that’s really the reason why we wanted to make this film, because his message and his spirit will change all our lives for the better.”

Ackland added “I think you have got to be careful in telling true stories because you want it to be factually correct but you also want it to be interesting and sometimes those two don’t go together very well. It was all about finding the filmmaker who could properly pump the heart and personality of Mohamedou and make it his story.”

Macdonald was more than aware of what a huge challenge the team would have when adapting such a thought provoking story: “how do we tell this incredibly complex story, which has geopolitics, which has legal terminology, which has all these different countries involved? How do we tell that in a way that’s simple enough for an audience to grasp and also operate in a way that’s good storytelling, kind of like a thriller? I wanted this to be an exciting story, you are on the edge of your seat wanting to know what is going to happen next. So, that was the challenge of writing the script; how do we pack as much of this in, as much of this complex material in as possible and still make it an enjoyable experience, still make it an entertaining film? I think what we all wanted to do was make an entertaining piece of cinema about an important true story.”

Jodie Foster weighs in, “the most difficult part I think is just wanting to get it right, we want to be fair to all of the parties because I really believe that the truest stories are the ones where there just aren’t any bad guys. Where it’s just human beings that come together, trying to do the best that they can, but they’re guided by fear and I think there is a lesson in this story; is that impulse, that fear impulse is so strong and unfortunately it was in the era of Guantanamo, and in the era of 9/11, which took over the American psyche. We were making decisions, we were making international foreign policy decisions by fear instead of using the laws and the rules that we knew.”

Clarke adds that the filmmakers ensured they had input from all of the real people whom they were representing, and Mohamedou – also wearing a co-producer hat – Nancy Hollander, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch and Teri Duncan all fact-checked everything.

The producer notes, “this has its production challenges because you can’t have everything a hundred percent for real. It doesn’t work dramatically or practically. We’re not making a documentary but I feel like the two have come as close as is physically possible.”

With several drafts of the script taking shape it fell to writers Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshirvani to come on board and deliver the final draft for filming, with Noshirvani recalling “We started doing our research, speaking to Nancy, Mohamedou. Learning the intricate ways of Guantanamo which is a very confusing and confounding place and we spoke to some military JAG lawyers so we could come to grips with how military law works, which is completely different to the regular judicial system.

Haines adds “It was really about staying as true as we could to the material, talking to Mohamedou to go deeper than necessarily he put in the book sometimes, the same with Nancy, and digging into the history and trying to craft a story that felt true to everyone who was  involved in it but also for an audience that is watching it. It’s a movie, it’s not just a series of events that happened you know?”

With the project slowly starting to come together, the search began to find the filmmaker who would be responsible for shepherding Mohamedou’s story, a role that Ackland knew could only be filled by a very particular director. “We didn’t actually go to that many filmmakers because it’s so important to get the right one and so we sat on it for a while.”

The producers soon realized that multiple award-winning director, Kevin Macdonald, would be the best filmmaker to bring Mohamedou’s story to the screen. The Scottish filmmaker has carved a formidable reputation in the entertainment industry for his skill in documentary and drama filmmaking, born out by The Last King of Scotland, which received widespread acclaim.

Kevin Macdonald

“Kevin is brilliant at real life stories, he’s a very urgent, passionate filmmaker with a skill for thrillers, and we felt that his taste for stories from far flung places and interest in the lives of real people would be good for the project and would honor Mohamedou’s story” affirms Clarke.

Kevin was going to need some convincing. A first draft of the script existed, credited to M.B. Traven and based on extensive interviews with Mohamedou, beginning at his home in Mauritania just three weeks after his release.

Macdonald worked with the writer, and the new draft went to Cumberbatch and Tahar Rahim, both of whom enthusiastically embraced playing roles in the film. At that point, Macdonald made contact with Mohamedou via Skype.

Macdonald thought “oh that will be interesting and I did a Skype call with him. And the man  is so charming and so funny and so not what you expect, from an internationally wanted, excused, terrorist, criminal who was accused of recruiting people for 9/11 and financing terror. He’s so the opposite of what you imagine, he’s so in love with American culture, he can quote every line of The Big Lebowski, he knows it by heart because he watched it 110 times while he was in prison.”

With Kevin now on board, Benedict recalls the challenges they faced and how Macdonald instantly proved he was the right man for the role. “It’s a difficult subject matter to get financed and we constantly had to strategize and talk about how we would bring this story into reality. He met it all with such good grace. He fought for things that he cared passionately for which is incredibly important for a project that has this kind of integrity attached to it. He’s the best spokesman for this film, as well as the best director for it. He so thoroughly believes in the importance of making films like this, the difficulty of them is worth overcoming at every level to get the results.”

With a strong background in creating thought provoking, hard hitting, politically charged  thrillers Kevin knew he had the opportunity to tell a vital story that leans towards his particular cinematic skillset.

“I knew from the beginning that it was this combination of politics and an outrageous crime against humanity that got my blood boiling but also, I could see that it could be a real thriller, and it could entertain people. And so, there needs to be a lot of sugar in with the medicine and I saw the opportunity in this film to make something that is a thriller and which hopefully has that edge-of-the-seat quality but also a film in which it is about really wonderful characters, who you fall in love with.”

For the character who would play Mohamedou, Clarke recalls the filmmakers wanted to cast someone North African if possible, who could speak French and Arabic and English. Macdonald, who knew Tahar Rahim from working with him on The Eagle, sent it straight to the actor. Tahar immediately said ‘sign me up’!

Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Tahar Rahim

Rahim recalls his first reaction when he saw the title of the script, “I was like ‘no man’, it was ‘Guantánamo Diary’ and I thought it would be the same type of Hollywood story with terrorist roles that I refuse to play. When I first read the script I cried, I couldn’t believe that this guy has been through hell like this and at the end didn’t hold any grudge against anyone. It’s an amazing story, he’s a hero, an innocent man imprisoned and tortured, and as an actor – and as a human being – I think it’s a story that has to be told.”

(Real) Mohamedou says, “it’s a very difficult role for Tahar, he spoke to me about it. Of course it’s all difficult, our experience – whether it was pain or distress – was up there and then down there and then sideways. He’s got to do all of that in the scene and be aware of where the cameras are. It’s an even bigger challenge to portray a real life, living human being.”

Two-time Academy Award winning actress Jodie Foster who is herself an acclaimed film director (Little Man Tate and Money Monster), was cast in the role of Mohamedou’s criminal defence attorney, Nancy Hollander.

Foster shares that she knew about Mohamedou’s book, and story, and had lots of questions about Guantanamo and what had happened in that time, “interestingly, even though I lived through that time, I didn’t have any of the answers. It was amazing to me that I knew nothing about it. I think we were all so shaken up by the events of 9/11 that there was such fear in America, but we didn’t think very much about who was being interned.”

(Real) Mohamedou says, “I love that Kevin says ‘no matter how dramatic this scene is, the reality was more dramatic than this’, because this is beyond anything you could imagine. I know that some actors did not feel comfortable to do certain scenes and I completely understand because the same thing happened to me. I did not want to go through this, believe me, but I had no choice.”

Academy Award nominated Production Designer Michael Carlin was tasked with re-creating the authentic environments of four worlds and two stories. Clarke comments, “the greatest challenge as a producer is making sure that we have enough money to make the film that we all want. We needed a healthy budget so we could capture the physical journey – Mauritania, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Germany, Washington, Albuquerque – it’s huge. It’s not a chamber piece where you can get a house and shoot it all there. You have to have scale and that was very challenging.”

Having frequently worked together over the past fifteen years, starting with The Last King of Scotland, Carlin and Macdonald have a strong understanding of how the other works.

To locate the backdrop of four, very distinct worlds the filmmakers scouted a few international countries which could offer the full basket of their location and production requirements. Carlin explains, “we scouted in Morocco and in Serbia, and in the end Cape Town ticked most of the boxes; there is a lot of architecture that we could use and adapt to suburban America; an excellent construction and art department crew to build big sets; and many people with military training and extras with the right look for a number of characters, such as the guards; and in addition we were able to shoot a big part of Afghanistan.”

The only scenes the filmmakers chose not to shoot in Cape Town were those set in Mohamedou’s country, Mauritania in West Africa. “We want to honor Mohamedou, his heritage, his family and his environment -properly,” acknowledges Clarke.

Carlin stresses that one of the most important things to know about Macdonald is that his introduction into making cinema was documentary filmmaking, “even if it’s a made-up story, you want to find the truth of that and recreate that. For a designer it makes things quite easy in a way, or at least it gives you a framework in which to work.”

Due to its vastness the GTMO set was built in three locations; the main composites of Camp Delta and Camp Echo were constructed in Paarl, an hour outside of Cape Town, with other sections of the same composite set on the beach at Strandfontein, which closely resembles the location of the real bay, and the real camp in Guantanamo. Other set elements were constructed at the Cape Town Film Studios.

The filmmakers aimed to use the real colors in Guantanamo as much as possible, “we edited out a lot of orange and red so when we see those colors they are more powerful. All the dark parts of the film are cool grey and concrete, and we slightly desaturated and darkened a lot of the Guantanamo interior colors just so that photographically, it would work better and be a bit more sombre and a bit more depressing. That part of the film was all a continuous color, whereas Nancy’s world in New Mexico has warmer colors, plants, natural fabrics and wood.”

Kevin Macdonald with Jodie Foster during filming

From the get-go the filmmakers were happy to welcome the genuine individuals, Mohamedou and Nancy, to visit the set. However, Mohamedou, had no authority to travel outside his country, Mauritania in West Africa. The government has declined to issue him a passport from the time of his release from GITMO. He recalls, “the trip was never a sure thing because of my history of incarceration and my lawyer and I and all the team worked very hard to get me down here.”

For Mohamedou, the punishment seemingly never goes away, and he reveals that he was apprehensive when he applied for his visa, but muses about his experience at the South African Embassy. “They asked me many questions and I just looked at them, saying ‘do you know who I am?’ and when the commissioner said ‘no Sir, I don’t know who you are’, I asked him to look me up in Google’. Then everything, including the procedure, changed. It usually takes days to process a visa but he fast-tracked and granted mine in one day. I feel this is characteristic of South Africa, because of their history. I am so happy and so proud to be from this continent.”

The former prisoner surprised the actors when he arrived at a table reading at Kevin Macdonald’s house in Cape Town. It was the first time the cast met the ‘real’ Mohamedou.

He reflects, “when I got to the table reading, I was very overwhelmed and I was just like saying anything, because I was overwhelmed with happiness, with meeting those great people.”

(Real) Mohamedou shares his reaction to the raw essence and character of the set, “there isn’t anyone else I know of that has been to the same place, except me and Nancy, and I kept asking her, ‘do you have the same feeling, this is real?’, and she said ‘yes’. In South Africa they did a very good job, on set Kevin and his ADs kept asking me very detailed questions like, ‘how did you wear this, how did you wear that?”

Mohamedou is frank about his experience, “the scenes I watched being filmed were so realistic I felt very uncomfortable, and after ten or twenty seconds I couldn’t watch any more. I remembered the same thing again.”

Foster says, “I think it’s been very surreal for everybody, for Mohamedou and certainly for Nancy to see the recreation of GTMO; to see the camp set up, to see the barbed wire, and fencing and the concrete walkways, the kind of sad air conditioners; and all of the military men in their various regalia. It’s hard not to feel like you’re back in that environment. I think that was  difficult for Mohamedou on his first day there, it was like his heart was pounding a bit.”

The Mauritanian Reviews - Metacritic
Mohamedou Ould Slahi and his lawyer, Nancy Hollander

Foster says, “what Mohamedou has lived I think so many of us couldn’t even imagine that we could ever survive it. Maybe the hardest thing has been that he has not been allowed to see his child, I think his boy is almost two years old now and he hasn’t been able to see him.” Foster continues, “the bureaucracy of various governments has done everything possible to continue to punish him and make sure he can’t resume a real life, which seems counter intuitive. Mohamedou has a lot to teach us about our system, the Western system of democracy that he respects so much.”

Ackland comments “the most extraordinary thing about our story is Mohamedou: what he endured, the person he is and was and how he touched people throughout. I mean it is extraordinary. I think where 99% of us would be crippled, he wasn’t. I think Kevin has represented this quite superbly and with the blessings of everyone all along the way. […] It’s such an extraordinary, true story and the biggest challenge by far was trying to get Mohamedou and his character into this film. The way that Tahar and Kevin have done that is inspiring.”

Macdonald notes “these things can be set in a brutal world but actually what you take away from it is the decency of human beings and the capability of people to forgive and change their minds. If ever there was a time we need to learn to see the humanity in the other sides of arguments it’s right now, when everything is so divided. So, I think that’s a really positive message and obviously I am keen for people not to feel like this is a punishing movie. I think this is a movie which has got great warmth and humanity at its core.”

Cumberbatch adds “one of the most heart-breaking moments in the film is when you feel that they have broken his spirit, where there is no hope… at the end of the day this is a celebration of the human spirit, this film, that’s really what it’s about. It’s about a human point of view, of what we can endure, what we shouldn’t have to endure and how to take solace from that and to realise the human spirit is a pretty extraordinarily robust entity and Mohamedou is literally living proof of that. I want audiences to be enthralled, I want them to completely fall under Mohamedou’s spell and care about his predicament. There’s elements of it that are thrilling and elements of it that are shocking, elements of it that are deeply moving and profound and funny and joyful, and I think at the end of the day you’re watching a man who is the personification of the human condition and the human spirit, triumphing over all that he endures, so it’s really a tale of hope.”