Nancy Hollander

Portrayed by Jodie Foster in the film, The Mauritanian, Albuquerque lawyer Nancy Hollander shares how she relies on storytelling and her fight to free Mohamedou Ould Salahi from Guantánamo Bay.

AIRED: October 02, 2021 | 0:26:40

Frederick Hammersley Foundation...

New Mexico PBS Great Southwestern Arts & Education

Endowment Fund at the Albuquerque Community Foundation

...and Viewers Like You.














>>Gwyneth Doland: Your experience as a lawyer

defending detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi

at Guantanamo Bay is now the subject of a

feature film starring Jodie Foster.

As a lawyer, how do you use storytelling to

persuade a court, or a judge, or whoever,

about your client's story as you see it?

>>Nancy Hollander: Lawyers are storytellers.

That's what we are.

We have to persuade either a jury, a, judge,

an appellate judge.

We have to persuade in what we write.

We have to use language that's visual, that you can see.

And I tell lawyers to listen to country music

because in three minutes you find out the whole story.


Why can't we do that?

And you can see it in your head.

>>Gwyneth Doland: If Mohamedou's story were a song,

what kind of song would that be?

A sad one?

A long one?

>>Nancy Hollander: Well, a sad one.

No it could be short, you know?

He went to jail.

Uh, he was tortured.

He got out of jail.

Um, he wrote two books, because, he's written a second one.

He wrote two books.

He has a son.

You could do all that in three minutes.

>>Gwyneth Doland: You worked on his case pro bono for 11 years.

It's a long time.

What kept you going?

>>Nancy Hollander: We started, Terry Duncan,

who's also in New Mexico, she's now a death penalty lawyer,

at that time she was my associate.

We started this case, we had no idea.

No idea who he was, where we were going with it,

what languages he spoke.

We hoped he spoke French, because the first lawyer

who I went in with spoke French.

Turned out he wrote, spoke English,

although his English was not as good then.

And then we just kind of got into it and we liked him.

We didn't know at the beginning if we could

believe everything he said, but we learned that

everything he told us was truthful.

And he's a very likable person and is really smart.

And so the more we got to know him, the more we got into it.

And there was no way we were going to quit.

And we told him that.

>>Gwyneth Doland: So the prosecutors have their

narrative and your job is to create a more compelling one?

>>Nancy Hollander: Well, a more compelling one and

often a more truthful one.

But the prosecutor's job is to prove their case

beyond a reasonable doubt.

My job is to represent my clients zealously.

And they're different jobs.

They're just different.

>>Gwyneth Doland: The movie is based on a book

that Slahi wrote while he was at Guantanamo.

What was it like to see yourself up on the screen,

this part of your own life played by Jodie Foster?

>>Nancy Hollander: It was definitely weird.

I've been in documentaries where I've been myself,

but I had never had someone play me before,

and she had never played a real live person before.

Except for "Anna and the King".

And Anna had been dead for 200 years.

So when we first met, you know, I said to her

"Nobody's ever played me" and she said

"I've never played a real person either".

And we bonded I think, Jodie and I over that.

I believe she plays me meaner than I am.

She thinks she plays me meaner than I am.

She says in her interviews

"Nancy's way, way nicer than I am."

Some of my friends would disagree.

>>Gwyneth Doland: So there are a lot of big important legal

issues in this case and some moral issues for us as a nation.

What do you most hope that viewers take away from

this film if they didn't already know this story?

>>Nancy Hollander: We want the conversation about

Guantanamo to come back.

Most people don't know "Oh, is it still there?

Oh, weren't they all terrorists?

Oh, we would never torture anyone."

We want to disabuse people of all of that.

Um, yes it's still there.

Yes there are still 39 people there, many of whom

have never been charged with a crime and have now

been there almost 20 years.

Yes, people were tortured.

Mohamedou may have been the worst tortured, but

just being in solitary confinement and being

locked up for 20 years when you have never been charged

and therefore are presumed innocent is torture too.

And I want people to know about it.

You know, a book is wonderful, but more people see the movie.

A movie is visual and people have seen this

movie and written to me about it saying "I had no idea."

And that's the conversation we want to start again.

>>Gwyneth Doland: And what do you hope will change as

a result of that conversation?

>>Nancy Hollander: Closing Guantanamo.

We need to close it.

There is just, there's nothing else.

It needs to close.

Biden, President Biden, is not really pushing in that

We need to keep pushing him while we still have him and

But we need to close it.

It's a horrible black mark on the U.S.

And not just it.

The black sites in other parts of the world too.

But this is the one that this book and this movie focus on.

>>Gwyneth Doland: Is his story like the others?

How is it different?

Was it just the worst?

>>Nancy Hollander: It's different in many ways.

There were, I believe, at the most 779.

President Bush released 500.

People forget that first he said they were the

"worst of the worst" and then he just released them, right?

President Obama released about 240.

But Mohamedou's case is unique in that he was the

worst tortured in Guantanamo.

Many of them were not tortured.

I mean they were tortured in the sense of being

separated from their families and being in

solitary confinement, but they weren't actively

beaten or hung or, you know, threatened the way he was.

So, in that sense his case is different, which makes it the

best case to talk about why we have to close Guantanamo.

>>Gwyneth Doland: And you came away persuaded that

he was a hundred percent innocent of the charges

they leveled against him?

>>Nancy Hollander: Absolutely.

>>Gwyneth Doland: And do you feel the same way

about the people who are left there now?

>>Nancy Hollander: I don't know, uh because nobody

has looked into all their cases.

Some of them, their cases have been looked into and,

but I don't know what their circumstances were.

I know that the judge ordered Mohamedou released

because the government didn't prove that it should detain him.

I know that Colonel Couch, who was the prosecutor,

came to the decision that he was innocent.

I know that Colonel Davis, who was the chief prosecutor in

came to the decision that he was innocent.

And, you know those are powerful guys, um people.

But those other cases, they're not my cases.

I have another case.

There's a very different case but someone who has

been charged with the death penalty.

But the others, I don't know enough about their cases.

But their lawyers do and they should be, you know,

they are getting out there also, talking about their cases.

>>Gwyneth Doland: In terms of Mohamedou's story, what

would you say is the moral of his story?

What's our one takeaway?

>>Nancy Hollander: We should treat everyone with

human dignity, which is what Colonel Couch finally found.

We should be kind to everyone.

We should make every effort to understand

people who are different from us.

And we shouldn't assume that because somebody is a

certain ethnicity or certain religion that that

makes them a bad person.

When you charge someone with murder, you're

charging that person.

When you charge someone with terrorism, you're

saying all the people in his similar circumstances

are guilty, and that's a problem.

A huge problem.

And we need to stop doing that and focus on,

you know, individuals.

But mostly, it's to treat everyone with

human dignity and kindness.


This is the America of the 1950s.

Champagne chatter.

Warm nights at the drive-in.

And Hollywood poise and glamour.

This is also 1950s America.

A divide on the streets of South Carolina.

Political fervor and labor traced beneath fingernails.

This is photographer Robert Frank's America.

"He wanted to document a civilization."

Armed with a Guggenheim fellowship, the Swiss

photographer drove 10,000 miles throughout his

adopted country in 1955 and 56, taking some 27,000

photographs and whittling them down to a series of 83.

He considered it a poem, says curator Alison Kemmerer.

"It's not documentary photography.

It's not a declaration of America is this or America is

So it's this idea of this kind of rhythm stanza.

You hit a flag, you kind of pause, reset, think

about where you've been and then continue the journey."

Frank published the series, titled The

Americans, as a photobook.

First in France and then in the United States in 1959.

The Addison Gallery of American Art is one of

only four museums to own the entire series.

It's presented in the same sequence here as in the book.

"This is a Fourth of July picnic in New York.

equality, freedom, opportunity,

children in white dresses,

that sort of innocent, buoyant energy.



(There's a big 'but' looming here.)

Yes, and I would say there's a clue, too.

The flag itself is transparent, it's kind of

like we're seeing through that symbol to see

something a little deeper, perhaps.

What is behind the veil.

So the next image takes us to New Orleans, a trolley car.

The racism, the segregation.

A little bit later on, the series grows seemingly

menacing in the intent faces of two hitchhikers

Frank picked up in Idaho.

Then we're back on the street as a car, in all

its energy, races past a group whose racing days are over.

Maybe the same for the car in the following photograph.

And itself in the next.

In the early 50s and things had changed.

So there's escalating Cold War,

the dawn of the civil rights movement, McCarthyism, the

There was just an underlying anxiety,

suspicion and negativity."

Which Frank toyed with.

In this photograph of a young, Kim Novak, we're

not actually drawn to the Hollywood actress.

"It's less about the starlet than it is about

all the gawkers surrounding her.

And, you know, it's a very subtle but powerful

comment on our celebrity worship and the value we

place on fame and glamor."

Frank developed a mistrust, even an anger

toward the ruling class.

Especially as he made his way through the segregated South.

"He was arrested several times on the trip.

He was not yet a citizen.

So he was a foreigner, he was Jewish,

he was held overnight in jail."

He wants to validate the people who are on the margins

The photographer returned again and again to symbols

of America-lunch counter, cowboys and jukeboxes.

But as you've likely figured out by now,

he captures them all with twinges of

In fact, the painter Edward Hopper was an influence.

"There was no prescribed, "I am going to do this."

It's more, "I am going to travel, look, see,

feel and see what I learn."

("Did he stay in observer or did he interact?)

He did not interact.

There's actually a great image that he cites as one of his

favorite of an African-American couple in San Francisco.

And they're lying down having a picnic and

they're turning around because they noticed him.

And it's obviously expressions of suspicion.

He loved the way the black couple contrasted against

the very white city."

When The Americans was published here, critics pounced.

At a time when Ansel Adams defined photography with

well-lit, crisp, images, Frank tended toward the

blurred, the grainy, and the provocative

"People did not like that.

But at the same time, that style and that exposure or

of truth influenced a generation of

photographers, writers, artists and viewers."

Who can still look at The Americans and sometimes

see them stare right back.


Chael Blinya: I'm not concerned with everything else,

while I'm doing it.

It just feels very innate.

But, I think the biggest thing I can hope for is

that they enjoy it and if they don't enjoy it, at

least appreciate it, because you might not like

something, but you can still respect that there's

like work and effort that I put into this, you know,

so I think acknowledgment maybe,

but nothing more than that.


Isak "Scorpio" Belmarez: I think before

meeting Chael, I kind of got to like a certain

limit where I was like, okay, I got all the, you

know, all my basics, you know, I know what I'm

doing and then like, when I started working with

Chael like, you know, just, I start pushing myself.

He start pushing me, you know, like to keep up with

the caliber of lyricism that he was already at.

Charles Hines: You really see the intention and the

love that he puts into his work and his performance

and then getting to know him, you, like you still

see the work and how it follows through.

So, there are times where he might be rapping to

himself or repeating a line to get the cadence

and inflection just right.

He's constantly writing and rewriting and

exploring different ways to approach things and

that carries over to his music.

I mean, as an artist myself, I feel like I know

tons and tons and tons of musicians.

I know tons of artists and Chael's craft and the, the

heart that he puts into his craft is definitely

different from a lot of other people that I've come across.


Chael Blinya: I come from a Ghanaian household.

I was born in Accra, Ghana in 1998,

and I've been here since 2003.

That's 17 years.

I came here a week before I turned five, and in 2004

we moved into our house and I've been there since.

My childhood was, it was a pretty like pedestrian

childhood, you know, I'm pretty sheltered, so a lot

of my time was spent within my neighborhood,

you know, my next door neighbors and,

like they were African, too.

So, we just kind of grew up in that, that same

sheltered lifestyle of this is where we are.

If we're not here, we're at school.

If we're not at school, we're at church.

Performing, I would say started when I was like

maybe like three or four because I was that kid at

that party on the dance floor from the moment the

party starts to the ending of it.

So, I would say I attribute my, my stage

performance and presence to those early days, just

the innate nature of a person.

You hear music, put on a show.

My writing days probably go all the way back to

like first grade, but sixth grade, I would say

that's when that writing translated from more

formal styles of writing to more like poetic and

creative forms of writing, where I'm no longer

writing in complete sentences.

I'm writing and making up my own language

essentially out of the English language and just

having fun and going crazy.

I don't think the writing and performing have

anything to do with each other.

I think the performing is just embedded in who I am

as a person and the writing is something

completely separate.

Charles Hines: Watching Chael from a stranger's

point of view, he can seem like a very stand-offish

person and then he gets on stage and he just explodes

and you're like, where did this come from?

This quiet guy who was not speaking to anybody.


Isak "Scorpio" Belmarez: I do a bulk of

the behind the scenes work so, you know,

I mix and master the music recording, make a lot of the,

the beats, do all of the music videos.

I do all of the technical things to get everything

out of his head into the, you know, make it tangible.


Chael Blinya: Our friend Scorpio is very talented.

He, he's a very diverse, diversely talented individual.

So it makes me not want to just wake up and not give

my best effort because you have somebody who is literally

just like a one stop shop for, for creative collaboration.

And I have a lot of ideas, but I don't have the

patience to learn the technical side of it.

With Charles, I think Charles just holds me accountable.

And I'll say with Charles, he's very outspoken about

how good my art is.

And I would be a fool to just wake up and stop making art.

And you have this person that's shouting your name

at the top of the mountains.

Charles Hines: There's definitely something

incredibly special about Chael.

He has a quality to him.

He has a flair to him that you won't find anywhere else.


Chael Blinya: We all know how hip hop is

portrayed in the media and in different outlets, so I

think the fear of my parents thinking that I'm

going to dive into this art form and change the

way I behave as a human being is probably what

allowed me to get to the root of the art form that

I actually enjoy, which is the writing and the

ability to bend words and get really creative.

It wasn't easy, but I think I'm finally at a

point where I can create hip hop and not worry

about it not being like a stereotypical type of hip

hop and it just being my own brand of hip hop.


Charles Hines: It's a work in progress,

but it's a movement that won't be stopped.

Chael Blinya: The art keeps me centered.

It keeps me grounded.

It keeps me focused.

It just doesn't allow my mind to, to wander and,

and stay idle.

It allows me to have purpose in everything I do

just because I know at the end of it,

the art will probably help somebody else.


You're in Down Home Leather.

We manufacture and make and design of the products in this

And everything is made right here in Mount Vernon.

We started in 1969, so we've been here almost 50 years.

I grew up in a leather shop that my father ran in Mount Vernon.

And his father also had a leather shop.


Me and my son produce 90 percent of it.

My wife cleans up our act.

She's the quality assurance to make sure the

things we bring are finished or she sends 'em back.

I'm the one who picks out the leathers

And I also do trim work and zipper work.

We have a lot of different colors.

We have, like, eggplant and a green and gold and

yellow and everything.

All my favorite colors, we really do, that are fall colors.

Well, it's got this magic aroma that people seem to like,

and I do especially.

The fibers are very tough.

You can cut them in almost any direction.

It's not like material which you have to be so

careful of which way the fabric is pulling or stretching.

But it's got a tough resiliency and nice to work with.

You look at several things and you say, "well, if we

made this better or a different color, it's

gonna look really nice," so you have your own

inspiration and your own ideas that bring forth these

ideas and hopefully somebody else is gonna agree with ya.

And we enjoy the, you know, putting things

together and getting it finished.

It sometimes does not behave itself and

sometimes it's stiffer than it should be and

other times it's not as resilient as it should be.

And every hide is completely different.

One mistake that people make with leather is, when

you get leather wet, you do not want to get it near heat.

Don't try to dry it in any kind of heat or put it in the sun.

If you just let it, at a cool temperature, dry naturally,

it will not hurt it at all.

After all these years, I see people that they've

bought purses from almost 30 years ago and they're

still carrying them and they tell me about it.

Makes me feel fantastic.

It really does.

I mean, it's an enjoyable business at this point.

I hope it can stay this way.

I don't wanna increase production to a

mindboggling thing or anything else as long as

we can keep people happy.

That's an enjoyable part of whatever anybody's doing.


New Mexico PBS dot org and look for COLORES under

What We Do and Local Productions.



Funding for COLORES was provided in part by:

Frederick Hammersley Foundation...

New Mexico PBS Great Southwestern Arts & Education

Endowment Fund at the Albuquerque Community Foundation

...and Viewers Like You.



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