As it should be, the extended torture sequence of Tahar Rahim's Mohamedou Ould Slahi in The Mauritanian is grueling to watch. It unfolds late in the film, and it’s only made more brutal by the fact that everything preceding it in the non-linear story aligns you with Mohamedou’s perspective, innocence, and humanity. It’s made a visceral and scary experience for the audience, with purposefully disorienting editing and images, and while much of it is based on what actually happened in real life, there is one unsettling detail that couldn’t be used in the movie: the guards performing the torturing wore masks of Star Wars characters.
I learned this terrible piece of trivia late last month when I had the opportunity to talk to director Kevin Macdonald during the virtual press day for The Mauritanian. Having been shaken by the film’s depiction of torture, I asked the filmmaker about the logistics of putting together that kind of sequence. In his description, he explained that one thing the production had to specially design were the masks worn by the guards because getting the rights from Lucasfilm wasn’t going to happen. Said Macdonald,
Instead of being disguised as Star Wars characters, the abusive guards wear a cat mask and what looks like a goblin mask, which, when combined with the flashing lights, quick cuts, and odd angles, does have that fairytale-meets-nightmare aesthetic desired.
As noted by the director, the torture sequence in The Mauritanian is also unlike any other in the film. For most of its 129 minute runtime it’s a legal drama, centering on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s detention in Guantanamo Bay while lawyers Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) prepare their cases for and against him, respectively. When it’s discovered what the innocent man had been put through, which is basically every government sanctioned torture method on the books, it becomes an entirely different kind of movie. Kevin Mcdonald explained,
Based on the memoir Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, The Mauritanian depicts the author’s experience of being taken via extraordinary rendition from his home in Mauritania due to the United States government believing him to be a key contact of Osama Bin Laden's, and a player in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He was kept as a prisoner in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for nearly a decade-and-a-half without being formally charged with a crime, and the movie chronicles that arduous, terrible time beginning to end.
The physical and mental torture that Mohamedou Ould Salahi underwent during his time in incarceration was something Kevin Macdonald understood needed to be treated with great care in the making of his film – which he also recognized held some important significance. While we have seen movies made about the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were used by the United States after September 11th – such as Zero Dark Thirty and The Report – The Mauritanian features a perspective that those features don’t:
Continuing, Macdonald explained that translating the perspective of Mohamedou Ould Salahi was a priority – and added that making the film that way ultimately influences the way you watch it. If you break it down moment to moment, as Kevin Macdonald noted, it’s not horribly violent, but it possesses an extra, horrible impact that comes with having sympathy and empathy for an innocent man experiencing a constant nightmare. Said the director,
The Mauritanian, which just earned Golden Globes nominations for the performances by Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster, and also co-stars Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi, and Corey Johnson, arrives in theaters this Friday, February 12.
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NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.