Berlinale 2022: Meltem Kaptan in 'Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush'
by Alex Billington
February 17, 2022
Now that it has been 21 years since 9/11, more and more films are being made about the aftermath of this tragedy – including the way America responded with torture and heinous decisions in an attempt to punish everyone responsible. Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush is another film that digs into the same kind of story as the one told in The Mauritanian, about one innocent individual who was (illegally) locked up for years in Guantanamo Bay by the US over exaggerated suspicions that were never proven. There have been a growing number of films about Guatananmo and how horrible this place is, between Camp X-Ray, and even Paul Schrader's The Card Counter (which dips into this in an unusual way). Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush premiered at the Berlin Film Festival (where it won two awards) and tells the story of a Turkish man from Germany who was sent to Guantanamo, while his mother spent years and years fighting to get him out.
Based on a true story, Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush (originally Rabiye Kurnaz gegen George W. Bush in German, also known as just Rabiye) is about an actual court case. The story spans almost a decade, but begins just after 9/11. Rabiye's son Murat has been becoming more and more religious and decides to leave Germany to visit the Middle East and study the Quran. But on his way he's detained and never heard from again. His mother becomes obsessed with finding him – at first she tries to understand why he disappeared, only to learn that the U.S. imprisoned him because they thought his movements in the Middle East matched those of a terrorist. But she doesn't believe any of that, so she convinces an intrepid German lawyer to join her in her fight. He spends years working with her, discovering the shocking details about Murat's detention and torture at Gitmo. Eventually the story gets into the legal quagmire that is Gitmo, and the challenge of defending the rights of this prisoner; they don't have any concrete evidence on him yet he's still imprisoned.
The film has a rather straightforward, linear narrative that follows Rabiye across nearly 10 years as she gets obsessed with trying to find and free her son. Turkish comedian Meltem Kaptan stars as Rabiye and she's the most wonderful thing about this film. Her effusive, bubbly, amusing personality stands out, so do her antics and incessant drive to get her son back. Whatever she needs to do, she's there, even if Murat doesn't even know what she's doing. Alexander Scheer co-stars as her attorney Bernhard Docke, and he perfectly exemplifies the attitude of many German lawyers. He's also kind of funny, in a much more subtle way than Rabiye, and that humor is important to break up the heaviness of this film. Experienced German filmmaker Andreas Dresen tells this story with confidence - not only does he understand the characters and their quirks, he knows exactly why this story needs to be told. That is to say, it's really about how 9/11 resulted in America taking away the freedom of innocent people, and fighting for the return of freedom is a heroic act.
As the title hints, Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush is essentially another David vs. Goliath story, in which a Turkish mother takes on the entire U.S. government. But the kicker, the real core of what makes this film so endearing, is that she doesn't really understand this or see herself in this way. All she wanted is to bring her son home. That was her focus, from start to finish. The politics, the human rights concerns, the impact on humanity, all of that is secondary to her because her son (and her family) is what matters above all else. That's the beauty of Rabiye and this battle against the forces that be. The film sometimes feels like a Larry David comedy but so many of the scenes are entirely accurate, as a cautionary tale of political debauchery and governmental carelessness. It doesn't try to blame anyone or vilify the United States, for the most part, as the film is mainly about Rabiye and her mission. And we should all be inspired by her tenacity and love.