Culture Trips

Film-maker Kevin Macdonald: ‘Oprah shaped America, but she’s unexamined’ | Film

Kevin Macdonald, a 53-year-old Scot, is a rare director equally at home in factual and feature films. His documentaries have included 2018’s Whitney, the climbing epic Touching the Void and One Day in September, an account of the terrorist attack on the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympics, which won an Oscar in 2000. On the dramatic side, he has made 2006’s The Last King of Scotland and now The Mauritanian, which tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, an electrical engineer, played in the film by Tahar Rahim, who spent 14 years in Guantánamo Bay detention camp from 2002 to 2016 without ever being charged.

When you were approached about making The Mauritanian, you weren’t sure it was right for you. What changed?
Very simply, I spoke to Mohamedou. When I was first given his book, I couldn’t see how to make a film out of it that would be different than anything else that had been done about the war on terror. But within two minutes of speaking to him, he’s laughing and joking, and quoting The Big Lebowski, his favourite movie. And I was just so struck by his positivity and his wisdom about what had happened to him and his lack of resentment. He says – and he really means it – that he would love to sit down and have a cup of tea with the people who tortured him. He’s got this superpower of empathy.

Mohamedou Ould Salahi came on set when you were shooting the Guantánamo section. How was that?
We were doing not a torture scene, but a scene where Nancy Hollander [his lawyer, played by Jodie Foster] has come in to talk to him. And he very quickly got agitated and said: “I want to go.” I spoke to him later and said: “Did that bring back memories?” And he said: “I thought I could handle it, but I couldn’t.” But I remember he also said: “Anyway, it’s so boring watching filming! You just make those poor actors do it over and over and over again. It’s kind of torture, Kevin!”

It was reported that at times Tahar Rahim was eating almost nothing and only drinking a cup of water a day. Were you concerned for him?
I was worried about him. Tahar is a real Frenchman and he basically lives on espresso and cigarettes anyway. So he didn’t give up the espresso and the cigarettes, even if he wasn’t having water. But that made me even more worried because I was thinking, “How can you have that much caffeine and nicotine and not be a wreck?”

The Mauritanian is expected to figure in this awards season [last Tuesday it was nominated for five Baftas]. Do you ever become blase about having won an Oscar?
[Macdonald pulls his Oscar from the shelf] It was so long ago. I was 31 or something when I won that and it was the first proper feature documentary I’d done. And I thought, “Well, that’s the first of many probably. It’s so easy to win these things!” Cut to now and there’s certainly no more on my shelf. But, no, it’s funny with Oscars, particularly in America; it is the equivalent of being knighted, I always think. It’s like having an OBE or something.

Is that another award I can see in your background? It looks like you are using it for a doorstop.
Oh yeah, that’s an Evening Standard award. That holds the door open. My favourite one is this, which is a golden easy chair. It’s for best movie of 2007 for The Last King of Scotland from the Association of Retirees.

Your film Life in a Day 2020, the sequel to a film you made from collated footage 10 years ago, was recently released on YouTube. Was the material much darker this time around because of Covid?
It was a lot darker. Looking back on the first film in 2010, the critics all said: “Oh, it’s just a medley of YouTube happy clips.” And it did have a sort of superficiality to it. This time it was the opposite. It really takes you to the dark places, but because it does that, the uplift when it comes feels more earned.

It’s just been announced that you are making a documentary about Oprah Winfrey. What’s your angle there?
It emerges in the process. I was interested in her as somebody who’s never had a film made about them, and when I met her, she said to me, “You know, I’ve only done four one-hour interviews in my whole life.” So here’s this person who shaped America, but who’s been unexamined. And how is it that she’s been unexamined?

What has got you through lockdown, either culturally or otherwise?
I started off lockdown thinking, like a lot of people: “I’m going to read some really great improving book.” And somebody wrote about Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, so I thought, “I’m gonna read that.” Of course, I’m still on page 80 a year later. So, no, that didn’t go so well. But I’ve been greatly enjoying The Three-Body Problem, the Chinese sci-fi series of books, which I gather the people who made Game of Thrones are going to turn into a series.

You recently put your name to a letter to Rishi Sunak saying that the UK cinema stands at “the edge of an abyss”. How worried are you?
I’m very worried. For me, it’s not the same watching things on TV: you can turn it off, you can make a cup of tea, you can check your phone. Whereas in a cinema, you’re captive, it is in control, you are the child in the relationship and you have to do what you’re told. That allows for a very different experience and I would hate for that to disappear.

The Mauritanian is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from 1 April

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