Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W Bush: An interview with director Andreas Dresen
Andreas Dresen is a regular at the Berlinale. In 2002 he won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize for his improvisational piece Grill Point (Halbe Treppe). Eleven years later, the German director was a member of the festival’s jury for its 63rd edition. This year he was invited back with his biographical legal drama Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W Bush, which screened in Competition and won Silver Bears for Best Leading Performance (Meltem Kaptan) and Best Screenplay.
We spoke to the acclaimed filmmaker about his extraordinary approach to the grim subject matter of illegally held prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the importance of film for matters of social justice.
Murat Kurnaz’s story is a tangled criminal case on the one hand and a global fight for human rights on the other, but you chose to depict those events with a very personal family angle. How did you decide on this approach?
I started to think about that angle when I ran into trouble with telling Murat’s story. As you can imagine, it’s a very dark story when you try to tell it from inside Guantanamo Bay. I often spoke with Murat, and, of course, it was dark, because it’s about torture, about hopelessness. For that reason, I became more and more afraid: could anyone in the cinema stand it, if I tried to tell it that way? Then, during a dinner, I got to know Murat’s mother. The first thing I remember is her laughing. Because she’s so funny, she can entertain the whole table; she’s full of stories, full of power and energy, and I would say she’s a bright person. I immediately fell in love with her, and when I went home by train that evening, I started to think, “Could this be a better point of view on the story: to show what Guantanamo means, if we speak about what it means for a Turkish family living in Bremen?”. For me, it was easier to understand what goes on inside the heart of a mother, who loses her son, than to understand what it means to sit in Guantanamo, being tortured. I think it’s also a better point of view for an audience to get into it.
Would it perhaps also have gone against your way of storytelling to shoot this movie in a darker, more violent way?
If I had set the film in Guantanamo, it would have been very violent. The point is that I’m not sure if the audience wants to see that – I think we need different kinds of stories. Of course, you have to find a personal solution: what you want to do. I already made, so to speak, “harder” films, but sometimes I had the problem that the audience didn’t like to see it. I was here seven years ago, in 2015, with As We Were Dreaming – a film about Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a film full of violence, and later, when we brought it into the theatres, I had a lot of problems with the audience. It was a film that seemed to be too strong for them. And so, for me, the political topic was very important, but it’s not helpful when nobody goes to see it. So you always have to find a solution. People, who are maybe not interested in things like Guantanamo, go into the film because it has some comedy and nice parts and it’s also kind of entertaining. They go and they discover something else.
Once you decided on a lighter approach, how did you work on the humour in the script?
Humour was helpful for us, but it was not our idea – it came with Rabiye. When she became the lead character of the movie, immediately, the humour came into the story, because I cannot imagine Rabiye without laughing and humour – it’s her character. Of course, when we discovered that, it became more and more helpful for us. The biggest deal was to find the right balance. And that’s why we needed a lot of time during the editing process to find a better balance between humour and the drama. The problem was that we couldn’t test the humour, because we had the pandemic and we couldn’t do test screenings, and I had only five people in the editing room. It is difficult with such a small group of people to test humour. So the world premiere, to be honest, was a test screening, but I had the feeling it worked.
It is interesting to see the different approaches your characters take, and also how they vary from country to country. In the US it is mostly through charities and the media, whereas in Germany it is very much about the courts.
The problem is if you try to deal with the matter of fact of somebody sitting in prison at Guantanamo Bay, you have no possibility to have contact. It’s really difficult.
What Bernhard Docke tried was also to go straight to politicians; he tried to have contact with human rights organisations, he tried to get in contact with other people who share the same problem. It’s a nearly unbearable situation they are trapped in, because where can you start to solve the problem? And, of course, you need partners. Fortunately, in the US there were some partners, and this was a good example, because when they went to the Supreme Court, many lawyers of different prisoners came together and prepared this. They weren’t alone.
The donations of Hollywood star Tim Williams certainly proved helpful. Is this character based on a real person?
It’s Vanessa Redgrave.
Coming back to the fact that turning to the media was an important step for Rabiye and Bernhard Docke, how important do you think film is for matters of social justice?
I think it can be important because, of course, we cannot solve political problems, but we can point our finger on political problems. We can create a public for things like that as well. I do not believe that films can change the world; that we have to do on our own – maybe we have to go into the streets – but we can make efforts to create a public opinion. And yesterday, with our movie, we were in the evening news here in Germany. So this may be important, even if some politicians decide not to do anything. But there’s a kind of pressure on them. Maybe next time they decide in another way, because they feel that it can be dangerous to move in that direction. It can be helpful.
In the end credits you mention that Murat is married with three children. How is he today? Has he seen the movie?
Yes, of course – he saw the movie, as well as the whole family. I saw him one and a half weeks ago. He’s fine – and I’m always surprised that he is. He’s not full of bitterness; he’s a very friendly person. I asked him once, “Do you hate the Americans?” and he told me, “Why should I hate them? Even the guards, some of them were friendly, some of them not. That’s the way human beings are. And of course, not all of the Americans are responsible for what’s going on in Guantanamo.”
I think he wouldn’t travel to the States because he’s afraid of what’s going on there, but he’s kind and brave. It was interesting, I heard an interview – I think in Deutschlandfunk – where a journalist asked him, what he would say to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, if given the chance. He said: “I would ask one question: if you were a lifeguard at a swimming pool and and a child starts to drown, what would you do? Would you help, or would you ask, ‘Are you German or a Turk?’”.
What about Rabiye? Did she feel that she was fairly represented?
Before we went to Berlin we showed them the movie. It was very important for me that the family – Rabiye and Bernhard, of course – that they are satisfied with the movie. For me, it was very touching how they reacted to the movie and they were there at the world premiere. I asked the real Bernhard and Rabiye to come on stage and they got five-minute standing ovations, and it was fantastic. I was standing beside Rabiye and she said to me, “Andi, this is beautiful, isn’t it?”… “Yes. Yes it is.” She’s very cute and such a nice person. I’m really happy that all of them are satisfied with the film.
Meltem Kaptan, who plays Rabiye, is a sensation. How difficult was it to find her?
Meltem Kaptan is originally a comedian living in Cologne. It was a long journey to find the main cast, because it’s not so easy to find a German- and Turkish-speaking woman at that age, who can carry a long film like this on her shoulders. We searched all over the German-speaking areas, even in Turkey. I had a lot of actresses for the casting process. Luckily I found her in the very first round – there I had Meltem, and from the beginning it was special because, as a comedian, she has brilliant timing. Every take with her was ten to 20 seconds faster than with her colleagues. And this is, of course, helpful for a story like this, because she drives the atmosphere of the storytelling. On the other hand, she has this kind of ability that you look into her eyes – or through her eyes – straight into the soul. Sometimes she has a child’s face in the movie. That’s what I liked from the beginning. So I decided to give her a chance – it’s her first movie, and I’m really happy about her.
How did you work on the dialogue? There’s a very natural switching back and forth between languages.
Yeah, it’s crazy. It was partly written and and partly improvised. Sometimes I like to be open on the set with the actors. For me, it was not so easy here, because I do not speak Turkish, so I had the dialect coach on set, who was specialised, because I wanted to have it as good as possible, so that even Turkish-speaking people will like it because it sounds natural. It was a lot of work to get this right. But I like it, because the Turkish society is part of Germany, and these people are living it. And in the way they are using it – they take the best word of every language and use it as they want – it’s funny to hear that. So sometimes they create their own words, in-between two languages, ”Kellnerinnen-style” crazy words. I think that people are speaking different languages is a very big part of this whole story.
What do you think has changed since Murat’s release in 2006?
Unfortunately, nothing has changed, because Guantanamo is still there and 39 people are still sitting there and no-one puts them on trial. They’ve been there for more than 20 years.
I think it’s 1500 GIs that are there to take care of 39 prisoners, and every prisoner each year costs them $30 million US dollars. I could imagine something better than running a system like this! It’s horrible to imagine that things like this are taking place in the name of democracy.
So I do not know if we learnt something. And if I look at the German politics, it’s not better because, of course, Angela Merkel did a great job – she followed her heart and took Murat out of Guantanamo – but none of the responsible politicians from those days took responsibility or even said, “I’m sorry for what happened to Murat.” Because he was not guilty, and he spent five years of his young life in this horrible torture prison. It’s a shame!
Why do you think we’re not learning?
That’s difficult to answer. I think politicians always have problems accepting that they make mistakes in their lives, and maybe it’s a human thing. I do not know. Maybe it’s difficult to say “sorry”, but I think there’s a high pressure on us to learn, because we have big catastrophes on Earth every day and we should learn a little bit faster – when we look at the climate catastrophe or anything else. We have to cooperate, and in Germany it’s crazy, because the Turkish community is a part of the German society – it has been for nearly 50 years. 50 years! When somebody from the Turkish community in Germany needs help, who cares if he has a German or Turkish passport? It’s so stupid! The only way for us is to cooperate and to come back to our story. We have a classic co-operation in our film: a (I would say) typical German lawyer and this exciting Turkish woman. They’re totally different characters, and then they co-operate and they are successful together. It’s all possible. Why aren’t we able to bring the best parts of all societies together?
The film is structured around the days that have passed since Murat’s unlawful arrest; sometimes there are longer stretches of time passing in-between. What made you chose these “chapters”?
When we were working on the screenplay we came across the problem that the story takes place over a very long time – it’s five years. We were asking ourselves how to make it clear. And sometimes you have one year, for example, from autumn 2002 until spring 2004, where nearly nothing happened; but this was more than 365 days. We show, of course, different seasons, sometimes snow, sometimes summer. Then we had the idea of counting the days. because if you see how many days have gone by since Murat left, you get a feeling what a long time it is. It’s 1200 days – it’s crazy. It’s a huge number of days. So that was the idea: to interrupt the film in a way and say, “OK, another period, 360 days are gone”. It was our way to create a structure to make it clear for the audience that the story takes place over five years.
Instead of presenting this as a dark story with a happy ending, you do the exact opposite. When Murat is finally home, the film moves away from its lighter tone.
You have to imagine he comes back after five years – and, as far as I know, until now they did not speak about what happened in Guantanamo. He comes back, but that doesn’t mean that every problem is solved. No, at this point the problem starts, because it’s difficult to handle such a trauma. It’s a trauma for the family and for Murat, of course – that’s why we have this kind of dark scene. They do not speak, and they do not speak of it until today, because it’s difficult to speak about these things. Of course, there are also difficulties between Murat and his mother because, as you see in the film, when all the press and media come to their home, she started to talk about him. Then came the expression “Bremer Taliban”; it was also because she explained that he went to this mosque – later on, he said she shouldn’t have told them. But, of course, she is responsible for the fact that he’s back. This is only an example to see how difficult it is in a family to handle things like that. We didn’t want to create an atmosphere of bright happiness, when he comes back. It’s the beginning of something else.
Photo: Jens Koch
Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W Bush does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2022 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.