EXCLUSIVE: Two of the principal architects behind the Oscar-nominated Paul Greengrass-directed hot-button films United 93 and Green Zone have optioned film rights on the Mohamedou Ould Slahi memoir Guantanamo Diary. Lloyd Levin and Michael Bronner, who were producers on those films, intend to bring to the screen the story of a suspected terrorist who has been incarcerated at that detention camp since 2002, without ever being charged with a crime or having the opportunity to defend himself in court.
Slahi, now a 44-year-old Muslim, is the son of a nomadic herder who was taken away from his life in Mauritania on the edge of the Sahara in West Africa. He has been subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques that include everything but waterboarding. His memoir claims that includes having his ribs broken, being kept awake for days, being blindfolded and taken out to sea where he was told he would be executed and was made to drink sea water, and subjected to sexual humiliation involving female soldiers. Two military prosecutors dropped his case citing moral reasons (mainly their belief that the incriminating statements made by Slahi were coerced through torture). Slahi was ordered to be released by a U.S. District Court judge in 2010, but that was overturned in an appeal by the Justice Department and he remains in Guantanamo.
The script will be written by Bronner, who covered terrorism and Guantanamo Bay extensively after 9/11 as a 60 Minutes producer before he got into the movie business providing expertise and research for Greengrass’s United 93 and then Captain Phillips. “My father was a defense attorney and I vividly remember him telling me that the central tenet of the American legal system is that you cannot imprison people without a trial, and if you can’t convict them, you have to let them go,” Bronner said. “Worse than letting a guilty person go free is keeping an innocent person behind bars. Guantanamo is an extra-legal prison that operates outside that rule of law, and I feel strongly as a journalist and citizen that this demands exploration. The movie isn’t a referendum on Guantanamo as much as a look at a man who wrote an incredibly moving, humorous, humane book, a stunning thing to come out of Guantanamo. At 60 Minutes, Don Hewitt always told us that to tell the big story, you have to tell the small story, and tell it well.”
Levin and Bronner will produce with Beatriz Gonzalez Blanco and Zero Gravity’s Mark Holder and Christine Holder. Co-producing is Larry Siems, a former PEN American Center staff member, who edited Slahi’s memoir.
Levin said the intention here is not to mount some polemic crusade, but rather “to put a very human face on a Muslim man who was considered public enemy number one and turned out likely not to be that…there is an opportunity post-9/11 for compassion, not for terrorists or terrorism, but for some kind of understanding of the majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims in this world. It is something that gets completely lost.”
Bronner won’t be permitted direct access to Slahi, so he will rely heavily on the 466-page book that Slahi wrote by hand, originally in the form of letters to his attorneys. It is the only published chronicle that exists of a suspected terrorist corralled at the military prison, and it was only published after a long legal battle that led to the manuscript being heavily redacted by the U.S. government. It has since been translated in 24 languages and it not only details Slahi’s nightmarish incarceration over the last 14 years, but his appreciation of life’s small blessings. It’s all part of a complicated figure who has been compared to Forrest Gump in that he too often seemed to be near or at the center of suspicious activity that made him a person of interest to the U.S. and international intelligence agencies before 9/11 and a priority after the World Trade Center terror attack.
In trying to find a handle on Slahi, I’ve read old stories on him that make him sound like Keyser Soze, all based on unnamed sources. There are just as many stories that make him seem like a man wronged. The whole thing is a slippery slope and the uncertainty helps make this a potentially compelling movie project. When the 9/11 fever that has gripped this country since 2001 finally breaks, is it time to examine the way that suspects were treated under the guise of national security?
It is understandable that Slahi set off alarm bells. He’s the first to admit he pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and fought for them. Per Levin: “He was a member of Al Qaeda when the U.S. was backing them in the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. When the war ended, he renounced his membership.” Later, when Slahi lived in Montreal in 1999, he led prayer services in a mosque frequented by the man called The Millennium Bomber, Ahmed Ressam, caught at the Canadian border with a car full of explosives he planned to detonate at LAX. Slahi’s cousin and former brother-in-law was a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden (he would disavow that relationship after 9/11). At one point, that cousin asked Slahi for money to move his family; Slahi would later be accused of sending money to support the Al Qaeda cause. These circumstantial ties looked like hot smoking guns shortly after 9/11, when Slahi was summoned by the secret police for questioning in Mauritania, and soon after found himself in an orange jump suit in Guantanamo.
Is he an innocent man? Two prosecutors assigned to prosecute his case quit. Neither said Slahi was definitively innocent, but one, Stu Couch, wrote that “as a practical matter, I am morally opposed to the interrogation techniques employed with this detainee and for that reason alone, refuse to participate in his prosecution in any manner.” Said U.S. Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a former chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions at Guantanamo who quit on moral grounds: “[Slahi] reminded me of Forrest Gump, in the sense that there were a lot of noteworthy events in the history of Al Qaeda and terrorism, and there was Slahi, lurking somewhere in the background. He was in Germany, Canada, different places that look suspicious, and that cause [us] to believe that he was a big fish, but then when they really invested the effort to look into it, that’s not where they came out…There’s a lot of smoke and no fire.”
Actually, there is one person who feels certain that Slahi isn’t a dangerous terrorist and that is Nancy Hollander, one of the attorneys who has pressed his case since 2005, and one of the few people not clad in an orange jumpsuit to have engaged Slahi in person since he was taken away from his life over a decade ago. She is largely the reason anybody knows about Slahi; after he gave her 90 pages of his writing in their first meeting “so we would know something about him,” Hollander urged him to keep writing what became the book. She and other attorneys then waged a long legal battle to get his life story published. “When we walked in, we were women and weren’t covered and this was a religious Muslim man,” she recalled of their first meeting. “He put his arms out, but didn’t move. Then we saw he was shackled to the floor. And then he embraced us. Never for a moment have I been fearful of him. He is an innocent man, no doubt in my mind, and it didn’t take long for us to realize they were just plain wrong about him. He was one of the worst treated in Guantanamo and Donald Rumsfeld signed the order for him to be tortured. The whole thing is just shameful.
“We won the case for his release in 2010 because they didn’t have anything,” Hollander said. “The government appealed and then the court of appeals changed the standard and now everything just sits awaiting review. I don’t know why. His dream is to get out, to be a productive citizen. He has a degree in electrical engineering, he is fluent in four or five languages. He won’t see his mother again because she died while he was there, but he has family. He has a little afterword in his book, where he hopes someday to have tea with the people he met in Guantanamo, and he shows no recriminations of vengeance or anger. I wish American people could know of him, because I doubt that they would want to see our government treating a person like him the way they have. He’s a beautiful young man, a sweetheart, and I would be happy to have him live with me.”
They will put together a package with script and a director and then take it to financiers. CAA brokered the book rights deal on behalf of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency’s Rachel Vogel. Bronner is repped by CAA and Anonymous Content.