• September 27, 2023

‘The Mauritanian’ Is Based On Guantanamo’s ‘Forever Prisoners’ : NPR

Sacha Pfeiffer from NPR talks to Jodie Foster about her new film The Mauretanian. She plays defense attorney Nancy Hollander, who represents a suspected 9/11 terrorist detained in Guantanamo Bay.


In Jodie Foster’s latest role, she plays a strict criminal defense attorney named Nancy Hollander.

JODIE FOSTER: She’s wearing bright red lipstick and that crazy red nail polish. And she drives racing cars and wears a lot of black leather. And yet this is a very sober, measured, somewhat suspicious, cautious legal sense.

PFEIFFER: Foster’s character is based on a real experienced litigator from New Mexico who was once at the center of a high-profile case in Guantanamo Bay.


FOSTER: (as Nancy Hollander) The US government is holding more than 700 prisoners in Guantánamo. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know what they are charged with. Since when did we start imprisoning people in this country without trial?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as David) I don’t want you to turn your wheels.

FOSTER: (as Nancy Hollander) David, I like the look of this fight.

PFEIFFER: Jodie Foster’s new film is called “The Mauretanian” and is based on the true story of one of Guantanamos’ so-called eternal prisoners who are being held without charge or trial. Foster says the script was a sobering glimpse into Guantanamo’s legacy of dysfunction and torture for her.

FOSTER: Yes, I knew absolutely nothing. I was one of those Americans who didn’t know anything. I think, like many Americans, we got it out of our heads with this idea that September 11th was so impressive and terrifying that the messy justice that was happening somewhere in the world wasn’t really our business.

PFEIFFER: In the film, Hollander flies to Cuba to meet the accused terrorist Mohamedou Slahi, who was once considered to be the prisoner with the highest worth in Guantanamo Bay. Slahi is played by Tahar Rahim. And in Guantánamo, Slahi was incarcerated for more than 14 years and was designated by the US government as a special survey – waterboarding, sleep deprivation, force-feeding. “The Mauretanian”, directed by Kevin Macdonald, recreates the protracted legal battle that led to Slahi’s release in 2016.


FOSTER: (as Nancy Hollander) I’m Nancy Hollander. This is my colleague, Teri Duncan, and we would like to represent you.

TAHAR RAHIM: (as Mohamedou Slahi) How can you defend me if you don’t even know what I am accused of?

SHAILENE WOODLEY: (as Teri Duncan) Have you been charged?

RAHIM: (as Mohamedou Slahi) No, no, no. For three years they don’t accuse me of anything.

FOSTER: (as Nancy Hollander) What are they accusing you of during your interrogation?

RAHIM: (as Mohamedou Slahi) I am interrogated 18 hours a day, three years.

PFEIFFER: Did you receive advice from Mohamedou Slahi himself and Nancy Hollander, his lawyer, on how to restore the feeling of Guantánamo?

FOSTER: Kevin Macdonald received a lot of advice from Mohamedou. They talked a lot. I mean, they were in constant communication about Guantanamo, how Guantanamo felt, how it sounded. There are really very few pictures of Guantanamo – very few records of what Guantanamo looks like. So they had to piece that together from Mohamedou’s memories of how big his cell was. You know, he would know because he would go up and down and would know how many feet it took or how big – when he raised his arms, whether they would go from one end to the other. And he even picked out some of the colors so they could reproduce Guantanamo exactly as it was.

PFEIFFER: I wonder what your impressions were, because the film makes him a little joke (ph), a little prankster. He liked to say, see you later, alligator – not what you expect a Guantanamo prisoner to do.

FOSTER: He’s even more like that. The real Mohamedou is even more stupid. He loves to annoy people. He especially loves teasing Nancy. He learned English through the Guantánamo guards, who are all 19, 20, and 21-year-old Marines and military officers. You know, he basically learned by watching “The Big Lebowski”. And he’s seen “The Big Lebowski” with these guys 85 times. And he says a lot guy. And he has very colloquial American English.

Yes, it’s everything you wouldn’t expect. Right? He is vulnerable. He is incredibly open and loving. You know, there isn’t a moment when Mohamedou doesn’t hug you. And that was the part I didn’t realize. That was really the gift of the film, realized they couldn’t break its humanity. In fact, they just made it stronger.

PFEIFFER: The film shows the torture he went through. And he says that torture eventually made him confess to something he didn’t do. And I want to play a clip of it for you. This is Mohamedou Slahi from an interview on NPR in 2018, roughly two years after he was released from Guantánamo.


MOHAMEDOU SLAHI: I told people, before they tortured me, please don’t torture me. I did nothing. Then when they tortured me, I told them everything they wanted to hear. I signed a confession. That’s it. I give myself very much.

PFEIFFER: And Jodie, I’ve been reporting on Guantanamo, so I know that in many ways it’s unclear what some of these prisoners did that they didn’t. The legal cases against her are so muddy. When I saw this film, it was unclear what he was guilty of and what he was innocent of. But maybe that doesn’t matter. I mean the problem is, was the litigation strong enough? Is that just circumstantial evidence?

FOSTER: Right.

PFEIFFER: Is that part of the point – that we don’t know exactly what he did, but the system failed?

FOSTER: Well, I don’t care what he did. He was abducted from his homeland by extraordinary rendition and taken to three different countries, all of which said they had no evidence to prosecute him. He was eventually taken to the United States, left in Guantanamo, and said I did none of this. What is important, however, is that the evidence against him has been completely refuted over time by Nancy Hollander’s lawyers. It was just that the government couldn’t bother investigating the evidence. They couldn’t even bother checking records or sending an investigator or refuting the evidence there.

PFEIFFER: I’ve read that Nancy Hollander cried a lot after meeting him, that tough woman who often showed no feelings at all, that she hated leaving him behind closed doors. Has she ever talked to you about moments when she felt kind of powerless?

FOSTER: Yes, it really does. And I think it really broke her heart. And she really does care about him. She takes care of him like a son and you can really see it. And look; Nancy Hollander has defended many culprits in her life. And I don’t think she necessarily wept over all of these culprits. I think that the circumstances with Mohamedou, he really is not a guilty man, not guilty of the crimes that he confessed in this forced confession.

But there are people in Guantánamo who are guilty of the crimes. And as Nancy Hollander says, they should be brought to justice. And no one says that everyone should run free and that there is no reason to have ever arrested anyone who came to Guantánamo. But if you know someone is not guilty and you keep them anyway, that is certainly wrong. And arresting, torturing, and holding people without charge and without real evidence, whether or not they are guilty, shouldn’t happen.

PFEIFFER: Jodie Foster plays the leading role in the new film “The Mauretanian”.

Jodie, thank you.

FOSTER: Thank you.

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