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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – In conversation with Jodie Foster and Nancy Hollander

Posted on 7 April 2021

Last week we were joined by award-winning actor, director and producer Jodie Foster and internationally recognised criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander who in an exclusive event spoke with Partner and Director of Business Development, Elliot Moss, about the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s fight for freedom.

Nancy Hollander, played by Jodie Foster in the 2021 film The Mauritanian, was instrumental in securing the release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi from Guantanamo Bay, the notorious military prison where he was detained and imprisoned without charge for 14 years by the U.S. Government.

Jodie Foster is an actor, director and producer. She has won two Academy Awards, three BAFTAs, two Golden Globes - one for The Mauritanian - and the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Nancy Hollander is an Associate Tenant at Doughty Street Chambers and Partner at US firm Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward P.A. She is also lead appellate counsel for Chelsea Manning in the military appellate courts.

To see the full recording of the Digital Session, please click the player below.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions is a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Elliot Moss

Welcome everybody and thank you for joining this exclusive Mishcon Academy Digital Session, part of a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.  I’m Elliot Moss, a Partner at Mishcon de Reya in London.  I’m hosting this session from Spiritland Recording Studio in Kings Cross in the Centre of London, England.  A few words about Jodie and Nancy; they need little introduction but I will do so anyway.  Jodie Foster is an award-winning Actor, Director and Producer.  She has won two Academy Awards, three BAFTAs, two Golden Globes – one for The Mauritanian – and the Cecil B DeMille Award, amongst almost countless others over a 50-plus year’s career.  Nancy Hollander is an internationally-recognised Criminal Defence Lawyer, an Associate Tenant at Doughty Street Chambers here in London and Partner in US law firm, Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward.  I love the long names in America.  Nancy Hollander, played by Jodie in the 2021 film The Mauritanian, was instrumental in securing the release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi from Guantanamo Bay; the notorious military prison where he was detained and imprisoned, without charge, for 14 years by the US Government.  The film, out tomorrow on Amazon Prime, is based on the book The Mauritanian written by Mohamedou about his time there. 

Let’s have a quick look at a trailer. 

M1:                   People have called you a Terrorist Lawyer, how do you respond to that?

NH:                  Well, when I defended someone charged with rape, nobody called me a rapist.  When I defended someone charged with murder, nobody dug around my back yard.  But when someone’s accused of terrorism, people like you seem to think that’s different. 

M1:                   You want to represent the Head Recruiter for 9/11?

NH:                  The Constitution doesn’t have an asterisk at the end that says, “Terms and Conditions Apply.”

MOS:                 They kidnapped me from my home and brought me here with a bag on my head and chains around my body. 

NH:                  What do they accuse you of?

MOS:                 Three years, they charge me with nothing. 

M2:                   Rough Justice.  That’s what this administration wants. 

M3:                   We are seeking the death penalty. 

NH:                  What if you’re wrong? What if you built this place, you abandoned all of your principles, all of your laws and you’re wrong?

                        You need to tell me what happened here.  I can’t defend you…

MOS:                 My captors cannot forgive me for something that I’ve never done. 

F1:                    Maybe he’s guilty?

M4:                   Someone has to answer for the towers. 

M3:                   Someone.  Not just anyone. 

MOS:                 In Arabic, the word for “Free” and the word for “Forgiveness” is the same one.  I want to forgive. 

                        This is how, even here, I can be free. 

So, good morning to Jodie in Los Angeles.  Good morning to Nancy in New York.  Hello both of you, thank you so much for joining. 

Jodie, I want to ask you a very simple question which is the story, and I’ve read the book The Mauritanian, and obviously you, this is where it started for you.  What, in your own words, was it about Mohamedou’s story that made you want to play the role of Nancy Hollander in it?

Jodie Foster

Wow.  Well, to start with I really strangely, as an American who lived through 9/11 and was touched by those experiences like all of us, of course, globally – I really knew nothing about Guantanamo and I don’t know if that was you know, an unconscious, wilful ignorance or because of the media or I vaguely knew that Obama wanted to close it but I hadn’t managed to do it and other than that I knew nothing about it.  So, when I read the book it was just a shocker, really an eye-opener and Mohamedou’s character, his not just his story but also his person, his humanness, his you know, twinkle, his beautiful humour, all of that really jumped out on the page and I wanted to know this person and wanted to know more about him.  So, I think like everybody in the movie and like Nancy as well, you know, we’re all here to serve Mohamedou’s story. 

Elliot Moss

You’ve talked in the past, Jodie, about not wanting to do political films per se but that this was about a character which happened to be caught up in a hugely political situation.  For me, immediately I go, “But Jodie Foster plays roles that are intelligent, that are strong, that have a point of view” and as you’ve said as well, historically, that seem to want to do the right thing.  So this, for you, must have been a really compelling challenge.  I mean this is… I look at this and I also think, “You don’t often play real people.”

Jodie Foster

Yeah, I definitely never, almost never played a real person.  This is the… only the second time I play a real person and the other one had been dead for a couple of hundred years, so I don’t think that really counts.  And, you know, the reason that I’ve shied away from political movies is just that the structure of political films often are really too simplistic to capture the nuance of the human experience and I just feel like sometimes they’re not powerful in terms of literature, they’re not powerful enough.  So, if I was going to do one, I wanted to make sure that it was, you know, fully nuanced and was talking about larger things than just an historical event.  So, there’s you know, not only was the story important and important for it to be told, because people can change through movies, we know, we can educate through films but also this character; what he endured, how he changed, how someone survives not just survives physically but survives with their humanity intact.  And in this case, Mohamedou strangely became an even better person, a more full person, a more realised spiritual person, by the time… through his incarceration in a way you know, it reconfirmed his humanity instead of the opposite. 

Elliot Moss

Nancy, why did you want to represent Mohamedou?  What was it about this case?  I mean, historically for those people that don’t know, Nancy Hollander likes to take on difficult cases, likes to defend supposedly the indefensible.  Tell me, at the beginning, why this appealed to you as a cause you wanted to fight for?

Nancy Hollander

I learned about the prisoners in Guantanamo in 2004 and decided that I wanted to represent one.  I actually wanted to represent somebody who was going to trial.  At that time, we really thought there would be trials sometime soon.  But the first person I wanted to represent didn’t want to have any Counsel and then I found out about Mohamedou from a lawyer in France who told me that the family was looking for him and so I decided to represent him.  I knew absolutely nothing about him. 

Elliot Moss

Of course, and Nancy, the point about, and someone had asked me on the Q&A, so at what point, or did you believe Mohamedou?  I mean that’s you know, it’s a fundamental question that the lawyer’s response could say, “Well, it doesn’t really matter” but for you, did you always believe that the charges were not right?

Nancy Hollander

Well, you’re correct that it didn’t matter to me.  If it had turned out he was guilty, we would still do everything we could for him.  But I had to… I didn’t know at first whether what he was saying about the torture was true, for example.  It was so horrendous, it was maybe he was exaggerating and of course, we learned that he wasn’t exaggerating.  Sorry for the sirens but I am in New York.  We have sirens, a lot.  But he you know, he… we learned rather quickly, quicker than it is in the movie that what he was saying was corroborated by these reports we were getting.  And then, it was later that we saw these confessions and we had to deal with every single one of them with him.  And we did and we did believe him. 

Elliot Moss

And do you feel optimistic that we can continue the fight?  That lawyers can continue the fight, that people will stand up for rights in the broadest sense?  Because it’s not a, the prognosis is not brilliant is it, at the moment and there are struggles.  But have you, do you also retain your optimism, Nancy?

Nancy Hollander

I do retain optimism.  I think that I couldn’t go on doing this if I didn’t have some optimism.  We have to believe that you know, we can make change for the better.  Lawyers and to the lawyers who are here listening to this, lawyers are incredibly powerful.  We have the power to make change and it’s a huge responsibility and a huge power and if lawyers are just willing to accept whatever happened before, whatever the precedent was and not push for change, in this country I mean, there are examples in England, I’m sure but in this country, you know, we wouldn’t have the right to a lawyer, we wouldn’t have the end of segregated schools.  There are a lot of things I can point to because lawyers were willing to use their power to effect change and that’s what I believe we have to do.  Not just criminal defence lawyers but others too. 

Elliot Moss

Yeah.  I just want to play the second excerpt from the film and this is Mohamedou and you, Nancy, Jodie, reflecting on how Mohamedou’s life has essentially been put on hold because of where he’s at. 

NH:                  Why didn’t you tell us? 

MOS:                 I know nothing.  Like fantasy.  None of that happened. 

NH:                  You signed them. 

MOS:                 They made me. 

NH:                  They made you as in they coerced you?

MOS:                 What do you think?

NH:                  I don’t know.  You tell me.  Did they coerce you?

MOS:                 Shhh. 

NH:                  You got to tell me what happened Mohamedou. 

MOS:                 You ask me to set fire to this place but I’m still sitting.   

NH:                  Well, then write it down.  That’s what the pages are for.  Write it down.  You need to tell me the truth.  You need to tell me what happened here.  I can’t defend you, do you understand that?

MOS:                 I don’t need to tell you nothing.  Whatever I say, it doesn’t matter.  This -- island, I die here.  Outside my family, my brother, their lives go on.  Terror’s  life goes on.  But me here, I’m, I’m like a statue.  You will leave too, your life will go on. 

NH:                  How do you know about my life?  This is it, this is my life.  I spend my time in places like this, helping people like you.  That’s what I do.  Don’t question my commitment to your case. 

MOS:                 The case.  The case, the case.  You’re not committed to me.  A person.  You think I’m guilty, say it.  I mean, you believe I did all these things so what the -- are you here?

Elliot Moss

Jodie, you mentioned earlier that we go on a journey with Nancy and she’s affected by Mohamedou’s movement towards even more generosity, more forgiveness and just him being the exceptional human being that he is.  In all the films that you have acted in, do you carry them with you?  Is there a sense that after the film, you leave a different person?

Jodie Foster

Absolutely.  I’m so glad you noticed that and said that, asked that question.  You know, it is why ultimately, it’s why we do what we do.  And certainly for me, I started acting when I was three years old.  I don’t remember really particularly starting acting, or making that choice and I’m not sure that it’s a choice that I would have made had I been you know, a 20 year old or something.  But consistently, as the years have gone on, that’s really what keeps me here.  It’s what keeps me making films.  It’s what makes it meaningful is that I change and I hopefully get better instead of worse and by extension so, hopefully, so does an audience.  And we make films in order to communicate, to reach out our hands and say, “This is who I am.  This is what I believe in” and every time you make a film, you seek confirmation of that, of your humanity.  There is something that occurred to me as we were watching this and as we’ve been talking.  You know, I do, I’m a reader, I’m somebody who really loved school and I do have kind of an intellectual side and yet I do this incredibly emotional job.  It’s a strange combination of things but it occurred to me while I was watching these clips that a lot of the film is about, you know, if you communicate and if you write it down and if you say it and if somebody will confirm what you say, you can be free.  And there’s an element to that in the law, which I think is quite beautiful and in the film as well, and that’s the literary critic in me, is that this book, the book that he wrote, that Mohamedou wrote, set him free and I would argue as a, as an artist, I would argue that that was quite literal.  I mean, he wrote this book and even though he was found, they threw out the habeas case and he could go home, the Obama administration still kept him in that cell for another five years and one of the things that was the pressure campaign that allowed him finally to be released was obviously Nancy’s good work as a lawyer, but also the fact that he had written a document that couldn’t be dismissed.  He’d written that as an art form in some ways and to me there is something very beautiful about that. 

Elliot Moss

Nancy and Jodie, thank you so much for joining me today.  I’ve absolutely loved it.  It’s been a real privilege talking to you both.  Thank you everyone that’s joined us on this Mishcon Academy Digital Session.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com. 

The Mishcon Academy offers outstanding legal, leadership and skills development for legal professionals, business leaders and individuals. Our learning experts create industry leading experiences that create long-lasting change delivered through live events, courses and bespoke learning.

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