The battle for the release of her son Murat from Guantanamo catapults Turkish housewife Rabiye Kurnaz from her terraced house in Bremen straight into world politics and all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington. At her side is human rights lawyer Bernhard Docke - the reserved, level-headed lawyer and the temperamental Turkish mother with a wicked sense of humour – now fighting side-by-side to get Murat out.
Murat is incarcerated in the U.S.’ Guantanamo detention camp. Desperate to help her son, Rabiye Kurnaz, a housewife and loving mother from Bremen, goes to the police, notifies authorities and almost despairs at their impotence, until she discovers Bernhard Docke. The reserved, level-headed human rights lawyer and the temperamental Turkish mother – now fighting side-by-side for Murat’s release. Docke is patient, Rabiye is not. She’d actually prefer to be back home with her family but finds herself totally enmeshed in world politics. She goes with Bernhard to Washington, and right up to the Supreme Court to bring legal action against George W. Bush. Bernhard watches out for her. And Rabiye makes him laugh. With heart and soul. And in the end, against all the odds, something truly remarkable happens.
THE TIMELINE OF A CASE
The shipbuilding apprentice Murat Kurnaz (19), a Turkish national with a German residence permit, flies from Frankfurt am Main to Pakistan. He wants to visit Quran schools in order to strengthen his Muslim faith, in his own words, before bringing his Turkish wife to Germany the following winter.
The U.S.A. invades Afghanistan.
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Rabiye Kurnaz goes to the police in Bremen, willingly provides information about her son and learns about the accusations against him. The Public Prosecutor’s Office initiates proceedings against Murat Kurnaz, the initial suspicion being “the formation of a criminal association”.
Murat Kurnaz is arrested in Pakistan, although not suspected of any crime, and handed over by local police to U.S. military forces for USD 3,000. The U.S.A. had used flysheets to offer bounties for the handing over of terror suspects.
The Social Democrat-Green government in Germany learns that a terror suspect called Murat Kurnaz, resident in Germany, is in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. Germany’s Federal Criminal Office cooperates with the FBI in the exchange of information.
The first photographs from the U.S.’ Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba are published. The inmates there are not recognised either as prisoners of war or as detained civilians. The U.S. government deprives them completely of their legal position, contrary to international law and the U.S. constitution.
The first German media outlets have contacted Rabiye Kurnaz and published news reports. Without knowledge of the background, any suspicion of a crime, the location or the circumstances of the detention, Kurnaz is dubbed the “Bremen Taliban”.
Murat Kurnaz is transferred to Guantanamo. In Germany, his mother Rabiye writes to Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He replies that the U.S.A. does not accept Germany as a negotiation partner in light of Murat’s Turkish nationality. His mother also seeks support from the International Red Cross and the Turkish Embassy.
After Rabiye Kurnaz receives the first sign of life via a letter in which her son reports that “there is not a single ground for my arrest”, she visits the offices of the Bremen-based lawyer Bernhard Docke. He takes over the case.
Three officials from Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) interrogate Murat Kurnaz on-site in Guantanamo. They conclude that Kurnaz was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that there is no suspicion of his being a terrorist; it seems that the U.S. also consider him innocent and not dangerous. A U.S. attempt to release Kurnaz to Germany at that time ends in failure after being rejected by the Federal Chancellery and the heads of Germany’s security agencies. Instead, proceedings are initiated to remove Kurnaz’s residence permit and thereby also to thwart his return to Germany. The reason given was that Kurnaz had spent longer than six months outside of Germany and had not applied to extend his residence rights.
These circumstances only became known years later.
Bernhard Docke provides the German public with regular information about the status of the case and above all about the illegality of the lack of rights asserted by the U.S.
The Kurnaz family still has no personal contact with Murat.
A year goes by without any legal progress being made.
As he writes in his book “Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo”, Murat is tortured in the most inhumane way. It is not until two years later that the scale of all Guantanamo practices becomes public.
Rabiye Kurnaz and Bernhard Docke travel to Washington together with relatives of other Guantanamo inmates. The aim is to use public actions and media appearances to exert pressure on U.S. politics and the judiciary to grant prisoners in Guantanamo like Murat the right to launch legal action against their detention. In cooperation with civil rights organisations in the U.S., Rabiye Kurnaz takes part in a test case for her son before the Supreme Court.
Rabiye Kurnaz and Bernhard Docke return to Washington to participate in the hearing before the Supreme Court.
At the end of June 2004, the Supreme Court decides in favour of the detainees bringing legal action, and against the Bush government. As a U.S. lawyer, Prof. Baher Azmy is subsequently instructed to represent Kurnaz before U.S. courts from now on. In early July, an action for review of detention, inspection of files, and visiting rights is brought before the Federal District Court in Washington.
Kurnaz is visited for the first time by Prof. Azmy. Azmy and Docke receive a file including the allegations against Kurnaz. Some of the accusations are absurd and all of them are simple to disprove. A military tribunal in Guantanamo nonetheless classifies Kurnaz as an “enemy combatant”.
The German Federal Judge Joyce Hens Green declares in a judgement that detentions in Guantanamo are illegal. Highlighting the Kurnaz case in particular, she states that exculpatory evidence was ignored and therefore no arrest warrant should have been issued. The U.S. lodges an appeal.
The media reports that Murat Kurnaz is to be extradited to Turkey. The family travels there with the lawyers Docke and Azmy. The operation turns out to be a rumour. Murat Kurnaz remains in Guantanamo.
Change of government in Germany. Former Head of the Chancellor’s Office Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was heavily involved in the Kurnaz case, becomes Foreign Minister.
The Administrative Court in Bremen finds the withdrawal of Murat Kurnaz’s right of residency unlawful.
Bernhard Docke writes to the new Chancellor, Angela Merkel. She replies and promises to advocate the release. German-American negotiations for Kurnaz’s transfer to Germany begin in January 2006.
August 24th 2006:
Murat Kurnaz lands at the U.S. military base in Ramstein where he is greeted by his family and lawyers.
After his release, Murat Kurnaz gave witness evidence before two Bundestag committees: the BND Investigation Committee, on the question of whether Germany had thwarted his early release; and the Defence Committee, on the issue of whether he had been mistreated in Kandahar by soldiers belonging to Germany’s Special Forces Command (KSK). He was also questioned as a witness by the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress.
All the accusations and allegations levelled against Kurnaz have proved to be false and the preliminary proceedings initiated by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Bremen were discontinued due to a lack of suspicion.
Murat Kurnaz has to date received neither compensation nor an official apology for the injustice he suffered.
Many of those who contributed to his fate pursued successful careers. Those responsible for the torture in Guantanamo were not prosecuted.
Together with his lawyer Bernhard Docke, Kurnaz has used his story at a large number of events at universities and schools, as well as in innumerable interviews, to highlight the importance of human rights.
Today, Murat Kurnaz lives in Bremen, has three children, is a language and culture mediator in a youth project and teaches sport.
The singer-poet Patti Smith dedicated her song “Without Chains” to Murat Kurnaz. The German feature film “Fünf Jahre Leben” (“Five Years”), directed by Stefan Schaller, had its cinema release in 2013. The film subject is Kurnaz‘s experiences in Guantanamo.
Even after what is now 20 years, the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo still exists at the start of 2022. 39 detainees are still being held there (as of January 2022). According to opinion polls, 56 per cent of the U.S. population say it’s the way it should be.
(Sources: discussion between the author Andreas Körner and Murat Kurnaz, discussion between Laila Stieler and Bernhard Docke, and the book “Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo” (author: Murat Kurnaz, 2007/Verlag Rowohlt Berlin), Amnesty International, ARD Mediathek, Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten)
2022 Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush / Rabiye Kurnaz gegen George W. Bush
2017 The Boy Who Sold His Laughter / Timm Thaler oder das verkaufte Lachen
2015 As We Were Dreaming / Als wir träumten
2012 Henryk from the Back Row (Documentary) / Herr Wichmann aus der dritten Reihe
2011 Stopped on Track / Halt auf freier Strecke
2009 Whisky with Wodka / Whisky mit Wodka
2008 Cloud 9 / Wolke 9
2005 Summer in Berlin / Sommer vorm Balkon
2003 Vote for Henryk! (Documentary) / Herr Wichmann von der CDU
2002 Grill Point / Halbe Treppe
1999 Night Shapes / Nachtgestalten
1992 Stilles Land
Andreas Dresen was born in Gera, East Germany, in 1963. He comes a theatre family and was shooting his first amateur films as early as 1979. In 1984/85, he worked as a sound engineer at Schwerin Theatre before completing a traineeship at the DEFA Studio for Feature Films and working as an assistant director to Günter Reisch. From 1986 to 1991, he studied directing at the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Since 1992, he has been working as a freelance author and director. He lives near Potsdam, is a member of the Academy of Arts and the European Film Academy and is a founding member of the German Film Academy.
His debut film SILENT COUNTRY (1992), a tragicomedy about events in East Germany at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, earned him both the Hessen Film and Cinema Prize and the German Critics’ Award. A number of award-winning TV works followed, including the sensational drama CHANGING SKINS (1997) about two pupils in the GDR who kidnap a headmaster who toes the party line. Dresen’s breakthrough came with the episodic film NIGHT SHAPES, which ran at the Berlinale in 1999 and won several awards including the German Film Award in Silver. His next film THE POLICEWOMAN (2000) won the Grimme Award in Gold. His biggest success to date came two years later with GRILL POINT, a completely improvised tragicomedy about two couples in Frankfurt an der Oder. The film was a popular success around the world and won numerous awards including the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Bavarian Film Award and the German Film Prize in Silver. His documentary film VOTE FOR HENRYK! (2003) was followed in March 2005 by WILLENBROCK, a cinematic adaptation of Christoph Hein’s eponymous novel. The tragicomedy SUMMER IN BERLIN was released in January 2006 and received the Ernst Lubitsch Award and the Bavarian Film Prize for Best Director the same year. CLOUD 9, an improvised drama about love and sexuality in older age, ran in German cinemas in 2008. The film won several prizes including the Coup de Coeur jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, and the main prize at the Trieste Film Festival. At the awards ceremony for the German Film Award, Ursula Werner won Best Actress and Dresen Best Director. CLOUD 9 also won the Lola in Bronze for Best Film. In WHISKY MIT WODKA (WHISKY WITH VODKA) (2009), Dresen presented a comical portrait of the film profession and the characteristics and etiquettes of the industry. The film earned him the Best Director award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
He showcased STOPPED ON TRACK at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 and won the main prize in the Un Certain Regard section. The German Film Academy awarded STOPPED ON TRACK four Lolas: Best Film (Lola in Gold), Best Actor (Milan Peschel), Best Supporting Actor (Otto Mellies) and Best Director. In 2015, Dresen was invited into the competition of the Berlinale for the third time with a film adaptation of Clemens Meyer’s successful novel AS WE WERE DREAMING. The screenplay was written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, whom Dresen had also worked with on SUMMER IN BERLIN and WHISKY WITH VODKA. In 2017, he released his first film for children and young people: THE LEGEND OF TIMM THALER OR THE BOY WHO SOLD HIS LAUGHTER after the novel by James Krüss. The film won awards at festivals in Chicago, Minsk, Zagreb and Seattle, as well as at the GOLDEN SPARROW children’s film festival in Germany.
GUNDERMANN (2018), Dresen’s film about the GDR songwriter and digger driver Gerhard Gundermann, with Alexander Scheer in the main role, was a big hit in the cinemas. The film delighted audiences and critics alike and won six German Film Awards, including Best Film (Lola in Gold), Best Director and Best Screenplay (Laila Stieler).
Dresen staged his first play in 1996: Goethe’s “Urfaust” at the Staatstheater Cottbus. Futher theatre works followed, including at Schauspiel Leipzig and the Deutsches Theater in Berlin where he staged the premiere of his own play “Zeugenstand” (“Witness Box”) in 2002 as well as Horváth’s “Kasimir and Karoline” in April 2006. His first opera direction – Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” – premiered successfully in Basel in February 2006 and was followed by “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Schlosstheater in Potsdam in 2011 and the staging of “Arabella” and “La fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the West”) at the Bavarian State Opera in 2014 and 2019 respectively.
Dresen has been a constitutional judge in the State of Brandenburg since the end of 2012. In the summer semester of 2018, he assumed the new role of Professor of Film Acting at the Rostock University of Music and Theatre.
2022 Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush
2010 Die Frieseuse
2008 Cloud 9
1992 Stilles Land
Laila Stieler was born in Thüringen, East Germany, in 1965. After graduating from secondary school, she worked first at Elektrokohle Lichtenberg then for GDR television before studying dramaturgy at the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television in Babelsberg from 1986 to 1990. Since 1990, she has been working as a scriptwriter, dramaturge and producer for film and TV productions. Many of her screenplays have been filmed by Andreas Dresen, including SILENT COUNTRY (1992), THE POLICEWOMAN (2000, Grimme Award in Gold) and WILLENBROCK (2005, Internationaler Literaturfilmpreis). Her screenplay GUNDERMANN (2018) was adapted for cinema, again directed by Dresen, and earned her the German Film Prize.
Other screenplays for cinema films include LOVE LIFE (director: Maria Schrader) and THE HAIRDRESSER (director: Doris Dörrie). Her screenplays for TV productions include NSU GERMAN HISTORY X – THE VICTIMS – DON’T FORGET ME (2016; director: Züli Aladag), LETTER TO MY LIFE (2015; director: Urs Egger) and THE TEACHER (2011; director: Tim Trageser), for which she was also the producer. She created her first series with the much-noted screenplay for TINA MOBIL (2021) about a saleswoman and her mobile bakery, serving people in the Brandenburg province.
ANDREAS DRESEN AND LAILA STIELER
“I simply couldn’t believe that something like this was possible and happened in our time.”
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RABIYE KURNAZ VS. GEORGE W. BUSH, your seventh joint work as screenplay writer and director, is about to have its first public showing. Let’s start by jumping two hours ahead: how do you want to leave people after this film?
Laila Stieler: Empowered.
Andreas Dresen: Angry in a productive way.
Does this kind of material find you or do you have to look for it?
Andreas Dresen: For me, the journey began when the then producer Christian Granderath pressed Murat Kurnaz’s book into my hand in 2008. I read “Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo” straight way and it left me extremely agitated. The book aimed directly at my sense of injustice. Anger also arose that I couldn’t channel. I simply couldn’t believe that something like this was possible and happened in our time. I then went to Bremen and met Murat. He told me his story in the course of long conversations. It was extremely impressive how he talked about these years in Guantanamo with great mildness and without any desire for revenge whatsoever. So the original plan was to tell Murat’s story, this almost Kafkaesque situation in which he found himself imprisoned without any prospects and mostly without social communication. But I didn’t manage it, to be honest. Cinematically, there was none of the dramaturgical shimmer of hope that is common to classic prison dramas. All the drafts got bogged down in bleak hopelessness.
Until the change in perspective. You met Murat’s mother Rabiye and her lawyer Bernhard Docke …
Andreas Dresen: Yes! Suddenly there was this couple. I met Rabiye, this wonderful woman with her immense strength, her courage to face life and her very particular humour, over dinner in Bremen. I already knew Bernhard Docke from the meetings with Murat. The idea that it might be possible to tell the story better from the perspective of these two people came to me as soon as I was travelling home on the train.
Laila Stieler was not yet involved?
Andreas Dresen: No, we were both still tied down with our work for GUNDERMANN. I didn’t want to land Laila with a second difficult project. During one of our long crisis talks ...
... one of your walks in the Uckermark.
Andreas Dresen: Exactly, that’s where I also told Laila about the Kurnaz story, without any ulterior motives.
Laila Stieler: I’d heard about it before, but just in passing. I don’t know if I’d have wanted to get involved if it had really been a film about Murat’s time in Guantanamo. Narrating that particular hopelessness that he experienced there is not really my thing as a writer. But I thought the new perspective was great and I was almost a bit insulted not to have been asked (laughs) …
Andreas Dresen: I admit the idea was seductive, but I had no idea whether it would really work. It wasn’t until Laila’s 20-page exposé that it became clear to me she was the only one who could and must write the screenplay.
Let’s go into your joint work on the material and begin with Rabiye Kurnaz – of course!
Laila Stieler: The first meeting with Rabiye was already love at first sight. She’s not only a great person but also a gift for me as an author. Inspired by her appearance, the idea also emerged of linking the political background of her story with comic devices. My son had also just started puberty at the time and as a mother I increasingly grew into Rabiye’s perspective and could imagine the fears that arise when children start going their own ways. I liked this universal aspect from the start.
You mention the comic aspects of the story. So those weren’t just stylistic devices to strengthen the character of the mother, to bolster her cinematically?
Laila Stieler: We didn’t need to mould or adjust anything. Rabiye made it easy for me to write about her. When we first met, she was still showing the marks of a serious illness, fragile, touching, and I didn’t know if we’d see each other again. When we met for the second time, a few months later, she drove up to the station in a sleek white Mercedes convertible. Then we sped through Bremen to loud electro-pop music. And then a few months later we were in a shisha bar with one of her sons, and she asked me when our film would finally be finished. That’s Rabiye. She keeps her spirits up. She has humour, strength, and is dazzlingly contradictory. If I think of her as chaste, she’s permissive. If I take her for naive, she’s smart. And if I consider her worldly, she‘s suddenly very pious. Rabiye has often turned my expectations of her upside down. “God is there to make life easy for us, honestly, Laila!“ she said to me once. What a sentence! Telling her story partly in a comic way appealed to me a lot, on the one hand because it’s something that’s not necessarily obvious with this theme, and on the other hand because it coincides with my attitude to life and telling stories.
It is admittedly reassuring that the humour in RABIYE KURNAZ VS. GEORGE W. BUSH is drawn from the real Rabiye. What could the lead actress Meltem Kaptan still bring to the role? What did she have to bring to it? What was she expected to bring to it?
Andreas Dresen: We spent a long time looking for the female lead to play this wonderful, idiosyncratic woman. She needed to have a certain congruence with the real Rabiye and of course a German-Turkish background. But most of all, she had to be able to carry the film energetically. A certain naivety was important, as that’s what makes up this character’s beauty and strength. Rabiye needed naivety to take on this fight in the first place. Too much reflection would more likely have led to resignation in her case. Meltem Kaptan, a stand-up comedienne who has never played a main role in a film, moved me emotionally from the very the first screentests. Although she has no children herself, you’d like to someone like her to be your mother. A woman who puts her arms around the world and charges forward. A lioness!
Meltem Kaptan shows herself to be very versatile, connecting the tragic and the comic, often in just tiny moments. A gift?
Andreas Dresen: Yes! Meltem is a quick-change actress. Sometimes she’s loud and forceful, sometimes totally permeable, so that you see her open heart beating. It’s not a technique you can train, you either have it or you don’t. Meltem also has a very good sense of timing when adapting the text and the character. In reality, she’s very different to Rabiye.
Laila Stieler: An example: for a key scene in the courtroom at the Supreme Court, I wrote in the screenplay: “Rabiye’s gaze wanders over the listeners and lands on Bernhard. She observes him with so much warmth that it almost hurts.“ I had to write it that way. But how are you meant to stage it? I left the sentence in as it was, for the feeling and temperature of the scene. Now I watch the film and see that Meltem acts it! She actually acts it! This warmth that almost hurts. I’d definitely like to mention our casting director Karen Wendland here, because the quality of the actresses she produced just for the casting of Rabiye was fantastic.
Rabiye, and her position, stand for the strong role of mothers in the Turkish and Arab world. Murat Kurnaz and also Mohamedou Ould Slahi in his “Guantánamo Diary” talk and write over and over again about their mothers in particular, full of love, respect and longing.
Laila Stieler: There are also many fathers who are actively dealing with the situation of their sons in Guantanamo. But back then in Washington, at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision, Rabiye was in fact the only woman in the group, which is why she had a special role there. In my experience, there’s a greater focus on the family in the Turkish or Arab world than is the case with us, at least that’s what I see in the Arab branch of my own family. They meet up more regularly. The ties are closer. If someone’s at risk of losing their way, they deal with it. Who exactly and how is in turn decided in the relationship structure of the families. If someone develops a particular strength and inclination, the other steps back. I suppose it’s like that everywhere. In our case, the fight for Murat was simply Rabiye’s area.
Rabiye’s eldest son was released from Guantanamo in August 2006. Did her story need this time interval, maybe, in order to be told today?
Laila Stieler: There would certainly have been additional obstacles earlier. Rabiye was seriously ill for many years. It would have been more difficult to talk to her about a film. There would certainly have also been different research interviews than was the case later. We would have certainly become a lot bitterer. What happened between 2001 and 2006 didn’t just traumatise Murat and Rabiye but the entire Kurnaz family. The father and Murat’s brothers were also sucked into the maelstrom. Ultimately, they withstood the pressure, but they went through the mill.
Andreas Dresen: I, for one, definitely needed this interval in order to see Rabiye’s story positively, and to understand that it is precisely this perspective that’s the more obvious one for me, because it speaks of the strength of the weak. When we learn of major political matters in the media, we often resign ourselves because we feel there’s not much we can do about them. And then suddenly it seems that we can! The world, as monolithic as it may appear, is changeable! A Turkish housewife from Germany can make stones dance. Starting out from Bremen, she can strike out against the U.S. president and win. Narrating that in a film was, for me, irresistible, because it’s so encouraging and nevertheless raises lots of questions.
What is the most important question for you?
Andreas Dresen: How can what happened to Murat Kurnaz and all the other people who were wrongly detained in Guantanamo, and are still being detained there today, be allowed to take place in our democracy?
Was it difficult to bring the lawyer Bernhard Docke into the film as a character and keep him next to this bundle of energy that is Rabiye Kurnaz?
Andreas Dresen: Bernhard Docke was definitely intended to become one of two equal main characters. It appealed to us, for the tone of the film, that Bernhard also has a very particular, subversive and rather dry sense of humour, something I’m very familiar with having grown up in northern Germany. When you see him in his office with the mountains of files relating just to the Kurnaz case alone, you get a rough idea of what he’s achieved over all the years. He is the intellectual engine of the film, because that’s also what he was for the legal process. With Rabiye and Bernhard, heart and mind complement each other in a wonderful way. They work on different premises: he is controlled, she impulsive. It is incredibly beautiful to experience them together, to see how, over the years, these two very different people grew towards each other, chafed each other, developed trust in each other, and needed each other as friends. Telling the story of this couple who have so much love for each other in a very unique way has massive charm. It’s the heartbeat of the story.
Laila Stieler: Bernhard Docke didn’t make it quite so easy for me as Rabiye, reserved, cautious and sceptical as he is. He scrutinised me repeatedly in my meticulous research and asked me all these uncomfortable questions: why do you want to make this film? What audiences do you want to reach? He never let it be known if my answers satisfied him or not. But he nonetheless patiently explained the legal background to the case, which is not at all easy to grasp, time and time again. How do you fight for the freedom of someone imprisoned in no man’s land where legal remedies just don’t reach? In the constellation of the characters Bernhard and Rabiye, I had the wonderful possibility of allowing Rabiye to ask all the questions I’ve asked myself and possibly also affect the audience without having to write long, explanatory monologues. The fact that Rabiye digs deeper or understands something in a very idiosyncratic way, and that Bernhard responds and corrects patiently, is simply part of their constant banter. But Bernhard has some very emotional moments, too; when it comes to Rabiye’s suffering and the manoeuvres of the German government, he almost goes up the wall. And because he sensed our attitude was essentially one of solidarity, I think that, over time, he came to have great confidence in all of us and he was forthcoming, understanding and extremely willing to help.
The language mix of Turkish, German and English, sometimes in just one sentence, is a powerful ingredient in the film’s liveliness. Was that decided at the start?
Laila Stieler: Yes, that was the intention, but implementing it was really demanding.
Andreas Dresen: It had to be this way because it corresponds with reality. It’s an international story and yes, this is how people speak in in many Turkish families in Germany. It was a challenge when casting the roles and a crazy experience when filming because there were times when I myself didn’t understand anything that was said. Only a language coach could help there. I had the ambition that it had to be right linguistically, right up to Turkish dialects. We also worked rather meticulously on the subtitles.
Laila Stieler: The word “waitress-style” is my personal favourite. It comes from a translator I went through the Turkish and German-Turkish sections of the screenplay with. I’d asked her to consider typical language creations, if they exist. She pointed out that the Turkish language is very figurative and flowery, and that terms of endearment are used all the time. I’d already got a sense of that but hadn’t yet implemented it in the dialogues. So “aşkım, balım and hayatım” were added in, meaning “my dear, my sweetheart, my life”, which are often hung on the end of a sentence.
Could this actually be an example for us to draw on, my treasures?
And this wonderful “Echt jetzt” [“Really”] spoken either as a question or exclamation?
Andreas Dresen: That comes from Rabiye. She also says “Gefellt mir!” in every second sentence [a mispronunciation of the German “Gefällt mir!” or “Like it!”].
RABIYE KURNAZ VS. GEORGE W. BUSH is by no means a victim film, although the family has of course become a victim. But one key aspect comes through: the way politics and society deals with victims is for the most part incomprehensibly defensive, sometimes presumptuous, and often downright shaming, regardless of whether it’s to do with abuse, persecution or terror. Why do you think this is?
Andreas Dresen: I think it’s particularly the case if a society that has to deal with victims bears some of the responsibility itself. The Guantanamo system, which still exists after 20 years, is wrong per se. It is inconceivable! Democracy has failed on a grand scale in Kurnaz’s case, not only in the U.S. but clearly also in Germany and in Turkey. Murat Kurnaz spent five years caught in a border triangle, in a mesh of responsibilities constantly being pushed back and forth. It makes me angry how ignorantly the German government has behaved and behaves towards Murat Kurnaz and his family, how they refuse to issue an apology, let alone award compensation. No one wants to take responsibility. There’s a lot I can understand. They were complicated times back then after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. There was enormous pressure on politicians, and this resulted in a few hasty and incorrect decisions. We may grant politicians that, but what we shouldn’t grant them, in my view, is not to rectify what needs to be rectified based on better knowledge and in line with later findings.
Laila Stieler: No one likes to assume the victims’ perspective. It would mean identifying with their powerlessness. This makes it all the more important in my opinion to present this position openly, to give this status a name. The press as fourth estate is playing an ambivalent role here. To some extent, they’re turning people into victims. How quickly prejudicial judgements are made! In this case, it was the “Bremen Taliban”, in the NSU case it was the “kebab murders”. On the other hand, without the press it wouldn’t have been possible for Bernhard Docke to generate so much publicity for Murat Kurnaz. When I was writing the screenplay, I often asked myself what I actually thought when I heard about him for the first time. Was I immediately appalled by what had happened to him? Or did I initially doubt his innocence? It’s not pleasant but very informative to catch yourself with your own bias. Maybe it’s the same for others, too.
Andreas Dresen, you are yourself a constitutional judge in Brandenburg. Have you also taken a fresh and different look at law and jurisprudence through your intense activity with the Kurnaz case?
Andreas Dresen: I think that the Supreme Court in the United States made a really good impression. It’s one of the most optimistic aspects of this story: rule of law remains rule of law; it can’t be eradicated just like that. So the separation of powers definitely has an effect. Whether, in the end, it can always take action and dodge the feints of the political world is another matter. Admittedly, my work at the court operates on a completely different level, but even here I witness how politicians can’t just do what they want. There’s always an authority that checks whether political action is constitutionally sound or not. I find that very comforting.
The discussion with Laila Stieler and Andreas Dresen was conducted by the author Andreas Körner in December 2021.
MAIN CAST BIOGRAPHY
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Alexander Scheer is considered one of the most versatile actors of his generation. This self-taught actor was discovered at the age of 22 by Leander Haußmann and his subsequent lead role in the 1999 film SONNENALLEE, Scheer’s big-screen début, turned him into a household name in Germany. After being engaged by Haußmann at the Schauspielhaus Bochum theatre, Scheer’s path took him via the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg and the Burg theatre in Vienna back to his home city of Berlin. Working with director Frank Castorf from 2001 onwards, Scheer became one of the leading actors at the Volksbühne Berlin, including in Castorf’s large-scale productions of Dostoevski’s THE IDIOT, THE GAMBLER and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. In 2009, Scheer was voted Actor of the Year by Theater heute magazine for his portrayal of the English acting legend Edmund Kean in Carstorf’s production KEAN.
In addition to his stage work, Scheer‘s performances in numerous German and international productions for cinema and streaming are also testament to his versatility. For example, he terrorises an entire transatlantic flight in the 2021 Netflix film BLOOD RED SKY or flies as David Bowie into the Amazon series WE CHILDREN FROM BAHNHOF ZOO in a private jet. Scheer can be seen as Andy Warhol in the 2020 Fassbinder biopic ENFANT TERRIBLE, and in two seasons of SLØBORN he faces down a pandemic. In 2018, he played the hostage-taker Dieter Degowski in the two-part ARD drama GLADBECK as well as the songwriter and digger driver Gerhard GUNDERMANN in Andreas Dresen’s eponymous feature film, winning several awards for both roles including the German Film Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for GUNDERMANN. He is well known for his meticulous preparation and in-depth research. For RABIYE KURNAZ VS. GEORGE W. BUSH, Scheer spent time with Bernhard Docke, viewing the case files and studying the human rights lawyer during his appearances in court.
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Meltem Kaptan was born in Gütersloh to a teacher mother and technical draftsman father from Rize, Turkey. While studying English, media studies and graphics/painting in Marburg and at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, she trained in acting and singing at the Faculty of Theatre and Performing Arts at Western Washington University in the U.S.A.
Kaptan received a U.S. actress employment agreement on joining the Summer Stock Company, a Washington-based musical and theatre production ensemble, in 2003 and performed in various musicals including WEST SIDE STORY, BOY MEETS GIRL, COMEDY OF ERRORS, MUSICAL NIGHT and SWEENEY TODD. She appeared in Turkish short films after completing her training at the Müjdat Gezen Acting School in Istanbul.
Since 2007, she has been living and working in Germany where she has made a name for herself as a comedienne, starting with various radio-comedy formats. She performed self-penned stand-up comedy numbers on stage for the first time in the Nightwash Live comedy format in 2008; this was followed by performances at NightWash on Tour, Quatsch Comedy Club and 1Live Auditorium–Comedy. In the same year, she appeared in TV formats including Ladies Night (WDR), Construction Site Germany with Jürgen Becker (WDR), The Bülent Ceylan Show (RTL) and Cindy and the Young Wild Ones (RTL). She has been a host on the comedy and cabaret show Ladies Night (ARD/WDR) since 2019 and has presented the bake-off programme Allererste Sahne – Wer backt am besten? (Crème de la crème – who bakes best?) on Vox since 2021.
Kaptan also works as a seminar actress in the field of communication for business and politics. She is a show host and the author of the comedy novel Verliebt, Verlobt, Verbockt: Meine türkisch-deutsche Traumhochzeit (In Love, Engaged, Screwed Up: My Turkish-German Dream Wedding) (Carlsen/Lappan Verlag). She played her first film role in the Turkish action comedy MORTAL WORLD in 2017. Her lead role in RABIYE KURNAZ VS. GEORGE W. BUSH marks her big-screen debut in Germany.
Meltem Kaptan (Rabiye Kurnaz)
Alexander Scheer (Bernhard Docke)
Charly Hübner (Marc Stocker)
Nazmi Kirik (Mehmet)
Sevda Polat (Nuriye)
Abdullah Emre Öztürk (Murat)
Şafak Şengül (Fadime)
Ali-Emre Sahin (Cem (11))
Mert Dincer (Cem (13 – 15))
Lemi Oğul Tan Ungan (Attila (6))
Devrim Deniz Aslan (Attila (8 – 10))
Jeanette Spassova (Sekretärin Koslowa)
Abak Safaei-Rad (Wiebke)
Alexander Hörbe (Wolfgang)
Tim Williams (Special Guest)
Screenplay: Laila Stieler
Directed: Andreas Dresen
Produced: Claudia Steffen, Christoph Friedel
Co-produced: Andreas Dresen, Andreas Leusink, Tom Decourt
Commissioning editors: Christian Granderath (NDR), Cooky Ziesche (rbb), Carlos Gerstenhauer (BR), Annette Strelow (Radio Bremen), Andreas Schreitmüller (Arte), Olivier Père, Rémi Burah (Arte France Cinéma)
Line producer: Fee Buck
Service Production USA: Sabine Schenk
Service Production Turkey: Erhan Özoğul
Cinematography: Andreas Höfer
Production design: Susanne Hopf
Costumes: Birgitt Kilian
Edited: Jörg Hauschild
Music: Johannes Repka, Cenk Erdoğan
Music supervisor: Jens Quandt
Casting: Karen Wendland
Casting (children): Jacqueline Rietz
Make-up: Grit Kosse, Uta Spikermann
Sound: Peter Schmidt
Sound design: Oswald Schwander
Soundmix: Ralf Krause
A production of Pandora Film Produktion
in co-production with Iskremas Filmproduktion, Cinéma Defacto, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Radio Bremen, NDR/ Arte, Arte France Cinéma
Original title: Rabiye Kurnaz gegen George W. Bush
International title: Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush
Duration: 119 min
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Original language: German with Turkish and English
Countries of production: Germany, France
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