Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W. Bush, a tragicomedy on Guantanamo

Movie on Turkish-German mother's fight to rescue son from infamous Guantanamo camp just hit Turkish theaters.

Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W. Bush, a tragicomedy on Guantanamo

An award-winning film telling the story of the Turkish-German mother of a survivor of the US’ notorious Guantanamo Bay prison camp this month hit Turkish theaters as part of the Istanbul Film Festival.

Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush tells the real story of a Turkish-German mother’s fight to get justice for her son Murat Kurnaz, who was held at the Guantanamo military prison camp on the island of Cuba for half a decade, between 2001 and 2006.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Turkish-German actor Meltem Kaptan, who plays the role of Rabiye Kurnaz, said that the film transcends geographical borders and could be the story of any mother anywhere in the world.

"The subject in the film is a general life issue," said Kaptan, who also won the Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance at this year’s Berlinale.

"We all know about Guantanamo, the whole world knows it, and the feeling of a mother's battle, the mother's heart, it is the same all over the world," she added.

Directed by Andreas Dresen, the film won two awards at this year’s Berlinale. Laila Stieler got the Best Screenplay award.

After kicking off on April 8, the 41st Istanbul Film Festival wraps up on April 20. During the festival, films by 164 directors from 43 countries are being screened over the course of a dozen days.

'Learned about Kurnaz family's struggle 20 years ago'

Cologne-based comedian Kaptan told Anadolu Agency that she first heard the story of the Kurnaz family around 20 years ago through German media.

“I remember that he was on the news for a while. He had long hair and slow speech ... That image of a person who had suffered a lot had a huge impact on me and my family,” said the 41-year-old comedian.

But Kurnaz’s story stayed on the back burner until director Dresen, who is known for his documentary-like realism, sought her out with the film’s screenplay.

Kaptan said that the film is told from the perspective of the prisoner’s mother, Rabiye Kurnaz. “I would play this role completely seriously because it is a very serious topic,” she said, adding that they wanted to portray Rabiye as her real self: “sparkly and lively.”

“We understood that this is a very important character,” she said, as Rabiye Kurnaz lived through a tragedy but “still does not feel hatred towards people, can look at people so positively, and is a character that can make us both cry and laugh in an instant.”

Kaptan said that the director only wanted to show the most natural state of mind.

“These people would never actually meet in real life, but they are fighting for the same thing in this way, they come together, but they are so different that such a comedy is formed,” she said, referring to Rabiye Kurnaz and her lawyer Bernhard Docke, portrayed by veteran actor Alexander Scheer.

The real Rabiye Kurnaz was sitting in the audience when the film was screened last week at the Istanbul Festival. She addressed the audience, and 10 minutes in, they were all roaring with laughter.

Kaptan said humor gave Rabiye Kurnaz strength while fighting for justice for her son.

Preparing to play Rabiye

To prepare for the role, Kaptan said that she met with almost the whole family, except Murat Kurnaz himself. All the communication with the Guantanamo survivor was done “through others,” she said, as he had gone through a lot and wanted to have “a little more calm life.”

As there was little material available to study Rabiye Kurnaz online, she used older footage of her from news reports. "Three or four videos, I tried to approach her that way, a little bit from her diction and her voice while watching the videos."

"She’s not a woman who speaks a typical Turkish-German dialect, she has a speaking style that is unique to Ms. Rabiye," she said. "Then I switched to body language and then I tried to include it in my daily life."

"And then of course, when I met her personally, there were also phone calls," she explained.

Germany has a large Turkish population, currently about 7 million, dating back to “guest workers” who emigrated there in the 1960s.

Turning tragedy into comedy

On the difficulties of trying to tell such a tragic story through the help of comedy, Kaptan said: “We know that this is a very fine line, we also know that it is a very sensitive point and it should be approached very sensitively.”

“When you make a film you just want to share it with the audience, (and) especially on an issue like this one, you want other people to hear it,” she said.

The team behind the film was happy to have its world premiere in Germany when it was accepted by the Berlinale, she said.

The movie “also shows mothers' power and mothers' unlimited love for children,” she explained.

“How much struggle some people have faced, whether in the legal sense, they put effort, that is, they fight against the injustices done in life, and this is one of them,” she said of the film.

About her Best Performance Award in Berlin, Kaptan said that although some members of the media told her after the film’s screening that she would get the prize, she told herself not to “fall into this.”

When the film won for Best Screenplay, she especially thought she would not get the Best Performance Award as it is rare for any one film to receive more than one honor.

When she saw her name on the screen as the winner, she said she was already on the stage and talking. And in her acceptance speech, Kaptan dedicated her award to “all the mothers whose love is stronger than borders.”

Hüseyin Demir

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