In increasing numbers, many ethnic minorities are criticizing the ‘white saviour’ complex that underlies many American films. The tract is this: a courageous Westerner dispenses his or her brilliance to control a situation, and refurbishes the status quo into something of better moral value than what had previously been.
When it comes to The Mauritanian, Kevin Macdonald’s screen adaptation of suspected Al-Qaeda recruiter Mohamoud Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) and his 2015 Guantanamo Diaries, that charge of ‘white saviour’ can only partly be made. We are introduced to Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), Slahi’s defence attorney, who pursues a relentless fight under the writ of habeas corpus to bring Slahi to court to re-evaluate the nature of his detainment. In fact, Slahi was imprisoned without charge for 14 years. In this harrowing time, he was mercilessly and humiliatingly tortured to admit, under duress, that he played a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is the strength of Tahar Rahim’s central performance, movingly embodying the strength and selflessness of our protagonist, that becomes The Mauritanian‘s winning element.
Going against Hollander is Lt Col Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), the US Military Prosecutor. His prosecution is tinged with personal feeling, as a friend of his perished on a hijacked plane during the September 11 attacks. This legal drama, as most other legal dramas do, puts the opposites head-to-head, wrestling the verdict of the victim caught up in the middle. The battle from both sides does its job for suspense and is well balanced. If the acting ensemble’s calibre wasn’t high, The Mauritanian wouldn’t have been convincing at all, but thankfully this isn’t the case.
Macdonald establishes the lawyers’ motivation early in The Mauritanian, but the weight of their legal strategy is lightened, however slightly, in comparison with the narrative of Slahi. Each side’s incentive, defence and prosecutor, seem to be slightly imbalanced; Hollander takes the case on as an act of ethical preservation of the US constitution, restoring a modicum of justice. Lt Couch, on the other hand, has personal trauma on his side to ensure that in the end there will be “a needle in his [Slahi] arm”, as he promises. Throughout the film, Cumberbatch portrays Couch as a cool and level-headed prosecutor with a sense of—to borrow from Lenin—“heart on fire, brain on ice”. Foster’s portrayal of Hollander, such as the subtle nervous hand rub when meeting Slahi for the first time, is an excellent example of the film’s small details that help establish atmosphere.
Macdonald employs tactics—most of which are successful—to separate the present and past narratives of Slahi’s imprisonment by way of framing. The past is marked with a smaller frame ratio, while the present feels wider, more cinematic. He juggles with the dual, conflicting narratives of Holland and Couch in a balanced way.
Rahim, in an interview with The Guardian about the process of recreating the experience at Guantanamo, expressed how he wanted to exceed the superficial. He needed to experience what Slahi did. The cell-room needed to be cold while filming, for example, and to actually be waterboarded to simulate the drowning. But it was different, as he rightly mentioned, because he knew that it would at the end of the day, all would be over, and a nice hotel bed would wait for him. Nonetheless, Rahim’s clear dedication infuses his gripping performance with a tangible authenticity.
A true story in cinematic form needs stir the audience into discussion and action. It’s about showing the real horrors of the authorities who watch over you and their capacity for twisted ethics. The Mauritanian does just that. Macdonald forces our perspective during the torture scenes into the frame and at that moment leaves us breathless, too. A cinematic experience is memorable when you vicariously, but momentarily, live the victim’s life.
Macdonald’s knowledgeable handling of the cinematographic elements is palable and assured. Tonally, the ‘white saviour’ complex charge is lessened as the story wasn’t as much about Hollander or Couch, but orbiting the psychological journey of Slahi, instead. Tahar Rahim’s performance captures the brilliance in Slahi’s moral strength, reflected in his ability to forgive his American captors for taking 14 years of his life.
Words by Anthony Cheng
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