Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'The Mauritanian' Is Based On Guantanamo's 'Forever Prisoners'


In Jodie Foster's latest role, she plays a stern, battle-axe criminal defense lawyer named Nancy Hollander.

JODIE FOSTER: She wears bright red lipstick and this crazy red nail polish. And she drives race cars and wears a lot of black leather. And yet is this very sober, measured, somewhat suspicious, careful legal mind.

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


FOSTER: (As Nancy Hollander) The U.S. government is holding upwards of 700 prisoners at Guantanamo. We don't know who they are. We don't know what they're charged with. Since when did we start locking people up without a trial in this country?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As David) I don't want you spinning your wheels on this.

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

PFEIFFER: Jodie Foster's new movie is called "The Mauritanian," and it's based on the true story of one of Guantanamo's so-called forever prisoners, held without charge or trial. Foster says the script was a sobering glimpse for her into Guantanamo's legacy of dysfunction and torture.

FOSTER: Yeah, I knew absolutely nothing. So I was one of those Americans who knew nothing. I think, like a lot of Americans did, we put it out of our mind with this idea that 9/11 was so affecting, so terrifying that whatever messy justice was happening somewhere in the world wasn't really our affair.

PFEIFFER: In the film, Hollander flies to Cuba to meet accused terrorist Mohamedou Slahi, once considered the highest-value detainee at Guantanamo Bay. Slahi is played by Tahar Rahim. And at Guantanamo, Slahi was imprisoned for more than 14 years and subjected to what the U.S. government called special interrogation - waterboarding, sleep deprivation, force feeding. "The Mauritanian," directed by Kevin Macdonald, recreates the drawn out legal battle that led to Slahi's release in 2016.


FOSTER: (As Nancy Hollander) I'm Nancy Hollander. This is my associate, Teri Duncan, and we wish to represent you.

TAHAR RAHIM: (As Mohamedou Slahi) How can you defend me if you don't even know what I'm charged with?

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

RAHIM: (As Mohamedou Slahi) No, no, no. Three years, they charge me with nothing.

FOSTER: (As Nancy Hollander) What do they accuse you of during your interrogations?

RAHIM: (As Mohamedou Slahi) I'm interrogated 18 hours every day, three years.

PFEIFFER: Did you get any advice from Mohamedou Slahi himself and Nancy Hollander, his lawyer, about how to recreate the feel of Guantanamo?

FOSTER: Kevin Macdonald got a lot of advice from Mohamedou. They spoke a lot. I mean, they were in constant communication about Guantanamo, what Guantanamo felt like, what it sounded like. There are very few pictures, really, of Guantanamo - very few records of what Guantanamo's like. So they had to piece that together from Mohamedou's memories of how big his cell was. You know, he would know that because he would pace it and know how many feet it took or how big - if he raised his arms, whether they would reach from one end to the other. And he even chose some of the paint colors so that they could recreate Guantanamo exactly as it was.

PFEIFFER: I'm wondering what your impressions were because the movie makes him out as a little banter-y (ph), a little bit of a joker. He liked to say, see you later, alligator - not what you expect from a Guantanamo detainee.

FOSTER: He's even more that way. The real Mohamedou is even sillier. He loves to tease people. He especially loves to tease Nancy. He learned English through the guards at Guantanamo who are all 19-, 20-, 21-year-old Marines and military officers. So you know, he basically learned by watching "The Big Lebowski." And he watched "The Big Lebowski" with these guys 85 times. And he says dude a lot. And, you know, he has a very colloquial, American English.

Yeah, he's all the things that you wouldn't expect. Right? He's vulnerable. He's incredibly open and affectionate. You know, there's not one moment where you don't get a hug from Mohamedou. And that was the part that I didn't realize. That was really the gift of the movie, was realizing that they couldn't break his humanity. In fact, they just made it stronger.

PFEIFFER: The movie depicts 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 you a clip from that. This is Mohamedou Slahi from an interview on NPR in 2018, about two years after he was released from Guantanamo.


MOHAMEDOU SLAHI: I told the people before they torture me, please, don't torture me. I didn't do anything. Then when they tortured me, I told them everything they want to hear. I signed confession. That's it. I very much surrender.

PFEIFFER: And Jodie, I've covered Guantanamo, so I know that it's actually unclear in many ways what some of those prisoners did, what they didn't do. The legal cases against them are so muddy. As I watched that movie, it was left unclear what he was guilty of and what he was innocent of. But that may not matter. I mean, the issue is, was the legal case strong enough? Is this just circumstantial evidence?

FOSTER: Right.

PFEIFFER: Is that part of the point - that we don't quite know what he did, but the system failed?

FOSTER: Well, I care what he did. He was - through extraordinary rendition, was abducted from his home, was taken to three different countries, all of which said had no evidence in order to charge him. He was finally brought to the United States, left in Guantanamo saying, I didn't do any of these things. However, what's important about it is that the circumstantial evidence against him was entirely disproven by Nancy Hollander's lawyers as the time went on. It was just that the government couldn't be bothered to look into the evidence. They just - they couldn't be bothered even checking records or sending an investigator or to disprove any of the circumstantial evidence that was there.

PFEIFFER: I read that Nancy Hollander often cried after meeting with him, this tough lady who often showed no emotions at all, that she hated leaving him there behind locked doors. Did she ever talk to you about that, moments when she felt kind of powerless?

FOSTER: Yeah, she really does. And I think it really broke her heart. And she really cares about him. She cares about him like a son, and you can really see that. And look; Nancy Hollander has defended a lot of guilty people in her life. And I don't believe that she's been crying about all those guilty people necessarily. I think that the circumstances with Mohamedou, he is genuinely not a guilty man, not guilty of the crimes that he confessed to in that forced confession.

But there are people at Guantanamo that are guilty of crimes. And as Nancy Hollander says, they should be tried in a court. And nobody is saying that, you know, everybody should run free and that there is no reason to have ever detained anybody that came to Guantanamo. But when you know that somebody isn't guilty and you keep them anyway, that certainly is wrong. And detaining people, torturing them and keeping them without charging them and without any real evidence, whether they're guilty or not, shouldn't be able to happen.

PFEIFFER: Jodie Foster stars in the new movie "The Mauritanian."

Jodie, thank you.

FOSTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.