Kevin Macdonald on The Mauritanian: “We’re still living in the shadow of 9/11”

Shailene Woodley, left, and Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian PIC: Graham Bartholomew/STXfilms via APShailene Woodley, left, and Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian PIC: Graham Bartholomew/STXfilms via AP
Shailene Woodley, left, and Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian PIC: Graham Bartholomew/STXfilms via AP
Kevin Macdonald’s latest film, The Mauritanian, focuses on the plight of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who was detained for 14 years with no charge, after being implicated in the World Trade Centre attacks. Even now, Macdonald reckons it only got made because stars Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tahar Rahim saw the importance of his story. Interview by Alistair Harkness

“We were a week into editing and then lockdown happened.” It’s January 2021 and Scottish director Kevin Macdonald is talking me through what it’s been like finishing a major movie in the midst of a pandemic. The film in question is The Mauritanian, a 9/11 legal drama starring Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch as rival lawyers involved in the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who was held for 14 years with no charge after being implicated in the World Trade Centre attacks.

“We were lucky in a way because we finished filming at the end of February, maybe the beginning of March last year,” says Macdonald of the production, which was shot mostly in South Africa, with a week of location work in Mauritania towards the end. “I’d heard a little bit about Coronovirus and when I was flying to Mauritania we had to go through Dubai and that was a bit scary, with people in masks, but it hadn't obviously got as bad as it did later.”

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Back in London he formed a bubble with his editor and cut the film all through the first lockdown. “There were no distractions,” he says, highlighting the one silver lining. “And then we sort of had to wait for a bit in order to be able to mix it and do music and all of that.”

Kevin Macdonald PIC: Thomas Lohnes/Getty ImagesKevin Macdonald PIC: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
Kevin Macdonald PIC: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

The biggest downside in terms of the film is that he hasn’t really been able to screen it yet in cinemas. He opted against submitting it to the big autumn film festivals once it became clear they were going to be online, but in retrospect wishes he had after it became apparent that lockdown restrictions were going to continue into 2021. When The Mauritanian has its online premiere at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, it will actually be its first ever festival screening. “Which is nice,” he says (it’s the city in which he was born after all), but he really wishes he could be there in person to screen it with an audience: “This is a film designed to have that kind of experience.”

Actually, watching The Mauritanian, one of the biggest shocks is to realise that this year marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. “Yeah, we’re still living in the shadow of it,” nods Macdonald. Not that a film like The Mauritanian could have been made until the last year or two. “My aim was very simply to humanise a prisoner who was in Guantanamo, and make you understand how awful it was for him,” he says of the film, which is deliberately presented as a legal thriller to hook audiences in, but doesn’t stint on detailing the torture and abuse Slahi was forced to endure as the US government repeatedly failed to deliver evidence to connect him to Al Qaeda. Even now he reckons it only got made because his stars met Slahi and saw the importance of his story. “I’ve really got to give a lot of props for that to Benedict and Jodie and Tahar.”

As it happens, it’s Tahar Rahim’s performance as Slahi, and the film’s decision to focus on his ordeal, that really helps distinguish it from the likes of Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty and Scott Z Burns’s The Report, both of which examined the aftermath of 9/11 over a period of years, but did so from the perspective of American investigators. “This is about somebody who is the victim,” says Macdonald. “It is about somebody on the other side.”

Having just picked up a Golden Globe nomination for his work on the film, Rahim (who has also been terrifying audiences as real life serial killer Charles Sobhraj in current TV sensation The Serpent) is certainly having something of a moment. Like a lot of film fans, Macdonald first saw the French-Algerian actor in Jacques Audiard’s 2009 prison drama A Prophet and was so taken with him he cast him as a Gaelic-speaking seal prince in his Roman centurion Highland epic The Eagle. They’ve remained friends ever since and after meeting Slahi, he knew Rahim was the only person who could play him.

Jodie Foster in The MauritanianJodie Foster in The Mauritanian
Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian

Rahim, however, had long ago made a point of turning down any parts requiring him to play a terrorist or a terrorist suspect. “I told him I had a script for him, but I didn’t tell him what it was,” recalls Macdonald. Rahim subsequently called him up and told him his heart sank when he got the script. “I thought, ‘F***ing hell, it’s about a terrorist…’” As it happens, he needn’t have worried. After reading it, he told Macdonald he empathised so much with Salahi that he wanted to do it. “It’s a film about understanding,” says Macdonald. “That’s what Mohamedou’s book was about. It’s about forgiveness and moving on from these terrible events. And that really meant so much to him.”

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As for Macdonald’s own reasons for making it, I’m curious if he saw any connection to his Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September, not least because Steven Spielberg’s subsequent 2005 film Munich made a very direct connection between the Israeli response to the Munich Olympic terrorist atrocity that Macdonald’s film explored and America’s response to 9/11.

Has he ever spoken to Spielberg about it?

“I gave them my tapes of the archive and they used some of the shots that we found, but no, I never have. I’d love to meet Spielberg for many reasons, but I’d love to ask him about that.

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Tahar Rahim in The MauritanianTahar Rahim in The Mauritanian
Tahar Rahim in The Mauritanian

“I do think in Spielberg’s filmography it's a really fascinating film,” he adds. “We think of Spielberg as the great unifier. But actually, it's quite an edgy action he takes in that film. After 9/11, he’s basically saying: ‘Let's not make the same mistakes; violence leads to violence; let’s stop and think.’ And that was not a popular point of view. It's very hard to stop the vengeance train once it gets up steam.”

The Mauritanian screens online at Glasgow Film Festival from 25-28 February, see and will be released on Amazon Prime Video on 1st April

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