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The Mauritanian: Is Hollywood finally taking note of war on terror injustices at Guantanamo? Open in fullscreen

Zaina Ujayli

The Mauritanian: Is Hollywood finally taking note of war on terror injustices at Guantanamo?

The Mauritanian was directed by Kevin MacDonald

Date of publication: 26 March, 2021

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Film Review: The Mauritanian follows the story of a Mauritanian man who was kidnapped from his home and imprisoned without charge for fourteen years and two months at Guantanamo Bay.

When I sat to watch The Mauritanian with my family, I found myself strangely nervous. Directed by Kevin MacDonald, The Mauritanian adapts the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian man who was kidnapped from his home and imprisoned without charge for fourteen years and two months in America's now infamous prison, Guantanamo Bay. 

Hollywood has a poor track record representing Arabs and Muslims - especially in films which speak on the aftermath of 9/11.

As film critic Hanna Flint notes, films about Guantanamo have overwhelmingly focused on a white-perspective, often at the exclusion or dehumanisation of Arab and Muslim perspectives. It's hardly a surprise, then, that an Arab Muslim might brace themselves for the worst when sitting down to watch a drama about Guantanomo Bay. 

Like other stories about Guantanamo Bay, The Mauritanian spends part of its runtime with Slahi's lawyer (Jodie Foster) and prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch); however, what makes The Mauritanian unique is that it dedicates time to humanising Slahi.

For that reason, The Mauritanian can feel like two movies folded into one. The first, a legal thriller. The second, a constrained, intimate character picture. 

While there is a lot to criticise about why Slahi's story needs to be mediated and couched between the struggle of two seemingly-good American lawyers to be greenlit in Hollywood, with the industry's sordid history of Arab and Muslim representation, we cannot deny the importance of Tahar Rahim's turn as an empathic, heroic Mohamedou Ould Salahi.

In one particularly striking scene, the camera pans down a Guantanamo cell block hallway as Slahi leads the inmates in saying a prayer. In a rare Hollywood moment, Islam is characterised as a source of communal solace and strength in the place best known for characterising it as a source of violence and radicalisation. 

In a rare Hollywood moment, Islam is characterised as a source of communal solace and strength in the place best known for characterising it as a source of violence and radicalisation

Rahim's Slahi is almost too good, seeking to forgive his tormentors after years of injustice and abuse, thereby allowing the film to end with a message of forgiveness rather than a message of outrage.

That too might merit critique from those who think the film lets America off too easily, but I think the reason the film ends with forgiveness is because it knows it cannot give the audience what it wants: justice.

There was no justice for Slahi and his fellow prisoners, nor for the prisoners still in Guantanamo Bay. If audiences walk out unsatisfied it's likely because Slahi's tale is deeply unsatisfying, not only because no one was held accountable for his suffering, but because the fight for justice did not end with Slahi. 

While my critique echoes much of what has already been said about The Mauritanian, I was both surprised and disappointed by how prominent reviews criticized the film not only for its narrative flaws, but for seeming outdated and ineffectual. 

The Washington Post claims The Mauritanian is "burdened by outrage fatigue" and "lands, through no fault of its own other than timing, with a whiff of been-there, done-that." 

The New York Times writes: "Flavorless characters and a blizzard of flashbacks repel our involvement in a drama whose timing, to say the least, is unfortunate. After weathering almost five years of rolling political scandals, American audiences could be less than eager to be reminded of one more." 

The LA Times says that The Mauritanian's narrative seems "quaint" in 2021, with the pandemic and domestic security threats having "exhausted the public's capacity for outrage." 

Collider notes: "With a news cycle that moves so fast (it was 10 days ago that we caught the President trying to extort an election official into fraud, remember?), things that happened in the 2000s can feel like ancient history. America is a country that likes to forget because it's always obsessed with the shiny, new things, which leaves a lot of sins as yesterday's news rather than something that needs a serious reckoning."  

In these reviews, as well as many others, The Mauritanian reminds Americans of an old story they have stopped thinking about, and for that reason, can come off as trite and hackneyed. And yet those reviews ignore a large demographic that may watch the film: Arab and Muslim Americans.

Arabs and Muslims don't need to be reminded of the consequences of 9/11 - they're still living with them. The struggle against surveillance, against profiling, against injustice, remain defining issues in the Arab and Muslim American communities.

While Slahi's story is one of fortitude, faith, and forgiveness in the face of insurmountable odds, it's one that many Arab and Muslim Americans may choose to avoid

Consequently, while Slahi's story is one of fortitude, faith, and forgiveness in the face of insurmountable odds, it's one that many Arab and Muslim Americans may choose to avoid.

Author Amal El-Mohtar uses an apt turn of phrase to describe why some readers will skip reading stories which might otherwise speak to their life experiences. She says it's like "not wanting to be punched where you're already bruised." 

I think many of us within the Arab and Muslim community avoid narratives about Guantanomo Bay and 9/11 because we don't want to be punched where we're already bruised.

The story of a Muslim man being imprisoned without cause, without charge, on the grounds of his faith and his associations, speaks to the worst fears of the American Muslim community after 9/11.

The story of a man being surveilled because of where he lives and to whom he prays is a reality that Muslim and Arab Americans have lived with since 9/11.

The story of a man who disappears in detention for years to be tortured is all too real for Arabs who listen to weekly accounts of loved ones and acquaintances going missing in Middle Eastern prisons.

We often go to the cinema to escape reality or learn something new, but movies like The Mauritanian often do neither for the Arab and Muslim viewer.

Consequently, Arab and Muslim Americans will likely experience watching The Mauritanian differently from other communities.Where they still feel bruised, the rest of America feels nothing at all. 

That being said, perhaps the highest praise that I can give The Mauritanian is that I didn't walk out feeling wounded, which is unfortunately so often the case for films about Arabs and Islam and terrorism, but instead hopeful that the truth about the aftermath of 9/11 is being told more honestly every year.

And, despite the apathy from the rest of the country, I think these stories need to continue being told. Not the least because they deserve telling, but because we can't achieve justice if we allow the rest of America to forget why we're fighting for it. 


Zaina Ujayli is an MA student at The University of Virginia focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century Arab and Arab American writers.

Follow her on Twitter: @zainaujayli

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