The scene takes place during the celebrations of a wedding, in Mauritania, in 2002. During the celebration, Mohamedou Ould Salahi, returning to the country after brilliant studies abroad, is approached by representatives of the local authorities. Without putting up any resistance, he agrees to follow them for, he is promised, a simple routine questioning. The young man’s family will go without news of him for several years. And for good reason: Mohamedou Ould Salahi was “handed over” to the American army and transported to Guantánamo prison, where he was tortured. He remained there until 2016 without a single charge being brought against him. The Mauritanian (Mauritanian) returns to the case, with Tahar Rahim in the title role and Jodie Foster in that of the lawyer who took up the cause for Salahi. We were able to talk to them during a virtual round table.
Besides the fact that he lost 20 pounds before the shoot, Tahar Rahim, who already spoke, in addition to his native French, English, Armenian and Welsh, added Hassanya Arabic and Classical Arabic to his directory. That, in addition to insisting on very difficult filming conditions – we will come back to that. Does this mean that the fact of playing a living person, as opposed to a fictional character, induces increased pressure?
“Usually, for me, it’s the same commitment, because my primary responsibility is towards the public. But in this case, you’re right: playing a real person, playing Mohamedou, who went through such an ordeal… I didn’t want him to be disappointed, or to feel misunderstood, or betrayed. He was my first audience […] The message of the film is so important, and Mohamedou deserves justice, deserves to be heard ”, confides Tahar Rahim, who finds himself here in a prison universe very different from that ofa prophet, a film by Jacques Audiard which made him known.
Regarding the said filming conditions, Tahar Rahim explains that because of this responsibility he felt towards Mohamedou Ould Salahi, he wanted the conditions in which he played and the abuse depicted to come as close as possible to reality. . “I’m not an actor who is capable of inventing all of this in his head: I need to feel. So yeah, to some extent, I needed to experience it physically. “
We are talking here about the cooling of the cell where he could shoot six days a week, twelve hours a day, the wearing of real handcuffs and real chains, sustained exposure to heavy metal thunderous… Of course, Tahar Rahim’s life was never in danger, but still. “I was exhausted, but it helped me achieve the required emotions and, I hope, express an authenticity […] During a scene where Mohamedou hallucinates and sees his mother, I was so drained. Something like this never happened to me, but I was convinced my mother was in the cell with me. I told Kevin [Macdonald, le réalisateur] that this scene, I could do it only once. For a moment, I forgot I was in a movie and after the scene I collapsed. “
Jodie has such a beautiful soul. Quickly, in the game, we found ourselves communicating between words. It was as if our two minds had started to dance together.
It should be noted that the actor is extraordinary in his dismay, resilience, but also humor. When Tahar Rahim met Mohamedou Ould Salahi, he was indeed astonished by the latter’s genuine good nature. “He kept joking, playing music, talking about movies… I couldn’t believe that a man who went through such a nightmare could be so generous and full of life. When we started talking about torture, however, his face changed, his mood changed. I watched him a lot, listened to him. His ability to forgive, to come out of Guantánamo not broken, but wiser: he is someone extraordinary. He said to me: “when you forgive, you make yourself happy, because you become free, even if you are locked up”. “
A significant asset for the film, Tahar Rahim shares a palpable bond with Jodie Foster on screen. “Jodie has such a beautiful soul. Quickly, in the game, we found ourselves communicating between words. It was as if our two minds had started dancing together, ”recalls the actor.
Kevin [Macdonald], who is also an excellent documentary filmmaker, is able to grasp the different points of view and understand that during this period Americans felt fear, terror and that essentially the government used those emotions to appease a revenge
“The role has changed a lot,” reveals Jodie Foster. In the scenario, there was a lot of additional material compared to Nancy [Hollander, l’avocate de Mohamedou Ould Salahi], about her story, her personal life, her ex-husband and all that. I thought it was superfluous. I thought it was more important that we stay on the story of Mohamedou. Everything we saw of the other characters, including mine, was to feed Mohamedou’s story. So we got rid of lots of elements and, for my part, I continued to purify, ”explains Jodie Foster, who is delighted that The Mauritanian offers a complex portrait of a Muslim protagonist, far from Hollywood clichés.
“It’s just not a Hollywood movie,” she notes. It was produced by a British team. We didn’t have an American distributor, I believe, because the production didn’t want to be censored or go before an American committee. It was a good thing since we were able to make the film we wanted to make and tell the story of Mohamedou by espousing his perspective, that of a Muslim caught in an exacerbated context of Islamophobia. […] Kevin, who is also an excellent documentary filmmaker, is able to grasp the different points of view and understand that during this period Americans felt fear, terror and that essentially the government used those emotions to appease revenge. “
Pragmatism and empathy
Nancy Hollander, the lawyer specializing in criminal law embodied by Jodie Foster, has never hesitated to attack institutions, here the American army and government. It is a golden role for the actress, who composes a character not idealistic, but of unfailing pragmatism; a woman with a deep knowledge and understanding of the law, which she refuses to see violated in this way.
In this regard, it is revealing to note that, when she agrees to defend Mohamedou Ould Salahi, she doubts his innocence, but, for her, the right to a fair and equitable trial takes precedence, even if it turns out to be that his client has, as the army claims without accusing him, recruited terrorists linked to the attacks of September 11, 2001. This shows the strength of the character’s convictions.
However, as the magnitude of the horrors inflicted on his client is revealed to him, hints of empathy come to color Foster’s brilliant performance.
“I only met Nancy after [les réécritures] and have hardened the character. And obviously I found myself in front of a lovely woman, a good person who speaks very quietly and methodically… I asked her if she gave me a license to play her. I wanted to be loyal to him, of course, but I needed to make some changes in order to facilitate this focus on the story of Mohammadou. She gave me carte blanche. In short, my Nancy is harder at first than the real Nancy is. “
Ultimately, Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim hope that the film will make people think, but above all, that the attitude of Mohamedou Ould Salahi will inspire.
The Mauritanian will be available on VOD from March 2.
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