Kevin Macdonald is the Scottish filmmaker who won an Oscar for his 1999 documentary One Day In September. He has gone on to make celebrated features like The Last King of Scotland and State of Play. The director returns with The Mauritanian, starring Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was imprisoned in American detention camp Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for 14 years without charge.
ASFF: What drew you to adapt Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book Guantánamo Diary?
KM: I read the book, which I was sent by the producers. I thought it was fascinating, but I didn’t see how to make a film out of it. And then they encouraged me to speak to Mohamedou himself, so I had a Skype conversation with him. It was talking to him, and being so surprised by what he was like… that’s what made me want to make a film. I was motivated by him and his character. I expected him to be very angry and embittered and vengeful but he was not. In fact, within two minutes of talking to him, I was laughing because he’s very funny. He’s very smart.
ASFF: What else did you find when you spoke to him?
KM: More than anything else, [he was] an incredibly empathetic guy. I thought: this man is really interesting – as a personality – I want to make a movie about that. I wasn’t motivated by political ideas. I wasn’t motivated by anything other than that, and I guess a human rights agenda. It was very important to Mohamedou that what happened in Guantánamo, particularly around his treatment, interrogations and torture, was as accurate as possible so we really suck to what he told us.
ASFF: How did you set about physically recreating Guantánamo?
KM: One of Mohamedou’s biggest concerns was making it feel like it really felt to him. So things like the colours and the material used were actually very important to him. He did lots of drawings. I’ve got videos showing how he measured everything out – like the length of his cell – with his body. He had memorised everything. He had even memorised how many holes there were in the fence that separated him from the guards. He counted them all to keep himself sane.
ASFF: Were there other sources you could use?
KM: There are some photos on the internet, surreptitiously taken by guards, not of the prisoners generally, but of the environment. [We also had a] guard called Steve, who is depicted in the movie a little bit. He became very friendly with Mohamedou and has been to visit him in Mauritania. He became a resource for us as well.
ASFF: What do you want people to take away from The Mauritanian?
KM: I was aiming to show an accused Muslim man as a rounded human being. I don’t think there’s anything controversial about that. I think those people who would like to say: “Well, Mohamedou was in Guantanamo, and therefore he is a terrorist, and therefore you shouldn’t make a film about him” are missing the point of what this film is.
The Mauritanian is available on demand from 1st April. For more details click here.