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08/25/2022 | Film and series review

Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush: Once Guantanamo Bay and Back

by Felix Thielemann

(2022, Political Drama/Comedy - Director: Andres Dresen - Screenplay: Laila Stieler - Germany/ France)  

With ten nominations for the 2022 German Film Awards and two Silver Bears at this year's Berlinale, Andreas Dresen's comedy-drama Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush is already one of the most acclaimed German films of 2022. But has the film, which seeks to tell the story of Murat Kurnaz, unjustly imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, from a different perspective, even earned these laurels, and can it contribute something new to a story that has already been told many times?

In 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks in New York, 19-year-old Murat Kurnaz was arbitrarily arrested while on a Quranic tour in Pakistan and subsequently transferred to Guantanamo Bay by the U.S. military, now branded an Islamist terrorist. The only reason for this? The war on terror declared by the U.S. and the ensuing military invasion of several Middle Eastern countries, as well as the discrimination, detention and torture of anyone who might pose a likely threat in the eyes of the U.S. Murat, as a young Muslim man with a beard, fits exactly into this racist pattern and is consequently simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In addition, Guantanamo Bay, the place where he is being illegally detained, is a so-called black site , i.e. an American prison on the territory of another state that officially does not exist at all. This means that neither the human rights recognized by the USA apply there, nor those of the actual country in which the Black Site is located. In this way, the U.S. is able to keep Kurnaz imprisoned there for nearly five years without ever officially charging him, presenting evidence of his guilt, or actually giving him a chance for a fair, judicial hearing. It was not until 2006 that he was finally able to return to Germany, and shortly thereafter he processed his experiences in a book, which was made into a film as early as 2013 in 5 Years of Life.

Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush now tells his story from a different perspective. Instead of presenting the events once again from Murat's point of view, director Andreas Dresen deliberately chose to show Murat's mother Rabiye (Meltem Kaptan) and her lawyer Bernhard Docke (Alexander Scheer), who together played an immense and probably decisive role in Murat's release. The film accompanies the two of them through almost the entire period of Murat's imprisonment. From his arrest, through the many legal attempts to free him, to the titular lawsuit against the President of the United States, as well as Murat's eventual release.

To this end, Dresen chooses an atmosphere for the film that is often more reminiscent of a comedy. The very serious moments of the story are repeatedly contrasted with humor and jokes. A particular focus is on the character of Rabiye, with the so-called "fish out of water" humor being applied here particularly often. This means: the humor is largely based on the fact that Rabiye, as a Turkish housewife and mother living in Germany without much knowledge of English, seems to be completely out of place when, for example, she goes to the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. with her lawyer and the parents of other victims (like a fish out of water) and finds herself confronted with the American press and culture. For example, she then vehemently points out to a (fictional) Hollywood star, who in the plot of the film is funding the efforts to free Murat as well as other innocent arrestees, that the houseplant in the suite where she meets him is about to die and that he should urgently water it again. These jokes may work once in a while, but in the long run they do a lot of damage to the narrative. On the one hand, the loose and harmless humor is often hardly compatible with the incredibly serious and worrying story, so that I had to grab my head from time to time during this tonal alternation in the cinema, and on the other hand, it also trivializes the experiences of the real Rabiye in a way. For film Rabiye remains relatively unchanged and for the most part optimistic and determined throughout the course of the film, which after all covers the entire period of her imprisonment, with very few exceptions. The few moments in which she seems overwhelmed by the size and hopelessness of the situation could be all the more emotional. But these are partly replaced by flat and simple jokes in the very next moment, and thus can hardly have an effect. The humor and tone of the film may certainly have been deliberately used by Andreas Dresen, but this does not change the fact that it simply seems out of place here.

What remains is a story that basically has very interesting features and repeatedly creates strong parallels to events of the present. For example, several German politicians who actively prevented the liberation of Murat and hindered the efforts of Rabiye Kurnaz and Bernhard Docke and who are still in high political office today, such as Frank-Walter Steinmeier, are discussed. The conditions of the German bureaucracy - whose structures repeatedly face accusations of racism - as well as American foreign policy also repeatedly show strong parallels to the present that are above all worthy of discussion. In this respect, the film can certainly still contribute something to the story of Murat Kurnaz, which has already been told several times, by providing younger generations with access and new perspectives on a series of incidents that, due to their subject matter (racial discrimination and persecution by state authorities and the military/police), are still incredibly relevant and present in public discourse today. However, the realization as a comedy - despite a few successful gags - unfortunately doesn't really feel confident at any point and contributes little positive to the plot and the characters. The whole thing often seems completely inappropriate and out of place in any way, much like a fish that doesn't swim in water.