Rabiye Kurnaz gegen George W. Bush / Rabiye Kurnaz vs, George W. Bush

Director: Andreas Dresen (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Bremen, October 2001. Day 1. A black screen, empty apart from the opening credits. We hear the voice of a woman shouting “Murat, stop that crap”. Rabiye is telling her son that it’s gone midday and it’s time to get up. As the credits end, we see her opening the door to … an empty bedroom. Shortly afterwards she gets a phone call that she doesn’t quite understand. Something to do with Frankfurt and Murat having gone with his best mate on a pilgrimage to Pakistan.

Some days later, Rabiye hears that Murat’s mate had debts, and was not allowed to leave the country. Murat went anyway, but was captured by US troops and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Rabiye is a simple and naive woman who has never heard of Guantanamo, and barely of George W. Bush, the president who sent her son there. But soon she’s visiting human rights lawyer Bernhard Docke to see how she can free her wrongly imprisoned first born.

Soon Docke is accompanying her to Washington – on a first class flight paid for by a liberal actor who sponsors human rights case. At a meeting of parents of Guatanamo detainees, she’s the only woman – her husband Mehmet had to work, and besides he does not believe that the justice system in the US or Germany will offer any justice to darker skinned Turks. Rabiye ends up making the closing speech, first faltering, than packed with emotion, which wins over the audience.

Gradually, Mehmet’s darker side starts to peek through. At first, it is implied his lack of interest in his son’s case comes from general pessimism fostered by racism and a belief – unlike Rabiye’s – that Murat might just be guilty. Mehmet is not exactly a hero, but at first his actions can all be attributed to lessons learned by someone forced to endure everyday racism and a shitty job.

Then Rabiye is invited to a second visit to Washington. As she tries to set off for the airport, she can’t get out of the house because all the doors have been locked. She manages to slip out of a window, explaining that this is what she used to do when he wanted to stop her from going to work. It seems that Mehmet is more sexist pig than victim of racism after all.

While they’re in Washington, Rabiye and Bernhard take a taxi to the court hearings where they’ve decided to charge George W Bush. They’re driven by a white, working class man – someone who in a different film will be seen as the embodiment of Trumpism. He realises who they are and asks “you’re those people off the telly aren’t you?” When they say yes, he says this ride’s for free. “I want to feel proud of my country again”.

So far, so cliché ridden. On the one hand, a woman who’s obviously not as knowledgeable as the audience. On the other, insinuations that Turkish families are much more sexist than their German counterparts. All with some Stars and Stripes flags thrown in. For a while, I was worried that we were expected to laugh at Rabiye rather than with her. She’s an overweight middle aged working class Turkish woman with dyed blonde hair. This all has the potential of being quite patronising.

But then, around the halfway mark, something happens that’s dramatically really interesting and full of pathos. Having set up Rabiye as being uninformed and someone who is Not Like Us, she is dealt a series of tragic blows. It has been gradually revealed that Murat was imprisoned because of his religion and not because he was guilty. Then, as pictures of Abu Ghraib are shown on television screens in the background, Bernhard reveals that Murat has been tortured.

There are also problems with the German government. A CDU politician announces on television that Murat will not be allowed back into Germany – he’d never got round to applying for German citizenship, and had not reapplied for his residency visa. The fact that he was stuck in jail in a US-American military jail on the edge of Cuba is not seen as a mitigating factor. The number of days that he’s been imprisoned regularly appears on screen. We started on Day 1, now its over 1500.

It gets worse. It turns out that the CDU guy is just a spokesperson. The government officials who made the decision were actual members of the SPD-Green coalition – the government for which progressive lawyer Bernhard had voted. And while we’re still taking this in, Bernhard is told by a reliable source that the US government had offered to send Murat back to Germany years ago, but Red-Green politicians had rejected this.

Rabiye is no longer the dumb innocent led by clever lawyers who understand things better than she can. Now, none of them has the power to change the machinations of self-interested politicians. And as a migrant, as a woman, as someone with no power in society, Rabiye suddenly becomes less comical than tragic – someone who has no chance of getting her way.

It is at this point that I think the film makes a wrong step. The government changes, and Rabiye says that she trusts the new Chancellor, because she’s a mother. When Bernhard assures her that Merkel is not a mother, Rabiye retorts “Well, she’s a woman.” The meaning of the exchange is ambiguous but there is at least the insinuation that Merkel’s racist government may have sped up Murat’s release. Historically and politically speaking, this is highly unlikely.

I understand where this is probably coming from. Like Bernhard, I guess that director Andreas Dresen is appalled that all this has happened mainly on the watch of a government that’s supposed to be on our side. But he doesn’t labour the point. Instead, this is a story of both a terrible injustice and of a working class voice that deserves to be heard, notwithstanding it’s owner’s various peculiarities. It’s crude in parts, but none the worse for that.

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