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‘The Mauritanian’: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jodie Foster makes legal waves
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jodie Foster meet as opposing lawyers at Guantanamo Bay in ‘The Mauritanian.’ The actual beach setting is Kalk Bay, South Africa.
Yes, the notorious Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp actually has a nearby gift shop that sells branded merch such as T-shirts and coffee mugs, as seen in “The Mauritanian.”
The drama (in theaters now) stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jodie Foster as opposing lawyers in the legal battle over Mohamedou Ould Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim), who was imprisoned by the U.S. government for 14 years without a trial at top-secret Gitmo.
Re-creating the detention camp in detail was a priority for director Kevin Macdonald in telling the often-harrowing true story.
“That was very important to me to get that as right as we possibly could. Because it was important to Mohamedou,” says Macdonald. “The one thing he said to me was, ‘I want you to make Guantanamo feel like it really felt.’ “
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That realism included showing the cramped cells and the rooms in which Slahi was tortured for 70 days to coerce him into confessing he helped organize the 9/11 attack (a revelation which prompted prosecuting attorney Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, played by Cumberbatch, to step down).
Keeping the film, shot primarily in South Africa, authentic also meant incorporating incongruous details from Gitmo’s Cuban home, such as nearby idyllic ocean waves with surfers, prison signs protecting the iguanas – and that gift shop.
While the gift shop is real, a few changes were added for the movie (including merging the shop with a nearby bar). The actual store does sell crass items such as “Don’t feed the Taliban” T-shirts, as depicted onscreen.
“That gift shop absolutely exists, and those T-shirts and mugs are modeled after things you can buy there,” says Macdonald.
Macdonald and production designer Michael Carlin brought their research to Slahi, who was allowed to return home to Mauritania in 2016.
The former prisoner was able to give details as small as the exact paint color of his cell, describing the metal grill that separated one holding cage from the two guards watching him 24 hours a day, Slahi “knew exactly how many holes there were in that metal grill, more than 4,000,” says Macdonald. “He counted them to keep his mind going. So that’s what we made.”
The filmmakers searched for a suitable location to re-create the prison camp. “It’s this Caribbean paradise, but with prison camps,” says Macdonald. “That sort of surrealism was important to capture.”
They headed to multiple locations in Cape Town, South Africa, with the torture cell and the interrogation rooms re-created on a nearby soundstage. The dark holding cells were kept to exact dimensions, despite the difficulties that meant for making the movie.
“I said it’s got to be 8 feet by 6 feet. So it was hard to shoot in and move around with a camera. And no windows makes lighting very hard,” says Macdonald. “But that, in the end, contributes to the authenticity.”
The green mesh-covered, chain-link fenced outdoor areas were rebuilt realistically, right down to the transplanted iguanas and the Gitmo signs protecting the reptiles.
“The signs threaten a $10,000 fine for harming for the iguanas, right next to the cells where Mohamedou was being mistreated,” says Macdonald.
The area that surrounds the real Gitmo even features a Subway and a McDonald’s. In the film, the classic McDonald’s signage is obscured for legal reasons, but Mohamedou’s lawyers order the prisoner a Filet-O-Fish for their first meeting.
Couch, now an immigration judge, says he was “blown away” seeing the re-created Gitmo, “right down to the paint color of the cells and especially the canvas covering of the chain-link fences.”
Nancy Hollander, Slahi’s lawyer (played by Foster) recalls visiting the set with her onetime client and being transported.
“I always hated going to Guantanamo. Seeing it again, on set, was actually somewhat of a shock,” says Hollander. “Walking through the green mesh, I actually gasped because I felt I was back in Guantanamo. I even said to Mohamedou, ‘Look, that was where you had poked a hole in the mesh and could see me coming.’ “
Being on the realistic set was also difficult for Slahi, who left the location shortly after watching a scene featuring Rahim. The director checked in on the former Gitmo prisoner later.
“That night I phoned him up and said, ‘Are you OK?’ ” says Macdonald. “And typical Mohamedou, he said, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s just really boring being on a film set. It’s like you’re making those actors say those lines over and over again.’ “