A determined Turkish mother takes on the authorities in Rabiye Kurnaz Vs. George W. Bush, Andreas Dresen’s drama that takes a light approach to a moving true story.
Dresen’s first Berlin Film Festival competition film since 2015’s As We Were Dreaming, it stars comic actress Meltem Kaptan as Rabiye Kurnaz. She’s a cheerful, effervescent woman living in Germany, whose grown son, Murat, is unexpectedly imprisoned during his travels and sent to Guantanamo. Convinced of Murat’s innocence, Rabiye bulldozes her way into the offices of a local human rights lawyer, Bernhard Docke (Alexander Scheer), who agrees to take the case.
The more Docke investigates, the more they are both aghast at the situation, but even with the press on their side, it’s a long and stressful journey to potential justice.
While Dresen and screenwriter Laila Stieler touch on those stresses in a couple of emotional scenes, they take a largely breezy approach, emphasizing Rabiye’s optimism, strength and humor, though perhaps falling back on maternal stereotypes one too many times.
There’s also fish-out-of-water comedy when the pair makes it to Washington, as Rabiye is confused by the language, politics and perhaps most of all, coffee. Cultural stereotypes abound, but they’re affectionate, and Rabiye’s one-liners do appear to fit the character. “Germans are smart but slow…” she says. “Do you know the saying ‘start it like a Turk but finish it like a German’?”
Performances are enjoyable: Kaptan is a likable lead with plenty of Erin Brockovich-style brass, while Scheer provides a patient comic foil as the mild-mannered, caring Docke. Other members of the family are drawn with fairly broad brush strokes, and Murat’s own experience is mostly left to the imagination, hovering as a horror story in the back of our minds, as it is in Rabiye’s.
There are a few odd editing decisions, but the astonishing real-life twists keep up the momentum. And it’s hard not to be moved by this portrait of a woman who would stop at nothing to rescue her son. If Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay was an unlikely comedy on the subject, make this an unlikely Guantanamo crowdpleaser.
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