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Film

Film traces German man's Guantanamo survival

"Five Years" examines the fate of a German Guantanamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz. Director Stefan Schaller's film exposes viewers to the horrific abuse of human rights endured by camp detainees - and how one man survived.

Cinema has always tended to embroil itself in current politics. While there is no standard formula for the genre of political cinema, the success of such films often comes down to the quality of the script and the ability and sensitivity of the director. The German film "5 Jahre Leben" ("Five Years") is one triumphant example.

The background to the film is the case of Turkish-German Murat Kurnaz. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, Kurnaz was captured in Pakistan and taken the notorious Guantanamo detention camp where he was imprisoned for five years.

It became clear just a short time after his arrest that Kurnaz was no terrorist and had nothing to do with the attacks in the US. After countless protests and protracted political and legal wranglings, he was eventually released without charge.

Scandal of a democracy

A scene from Stefan Schaller's film 5 Jahre Leben

German actor Sascha Alexander Gersak plays Murat Kurnaz in the film

Following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11, Murat Kurnaz entered the German consciousness as the "German Taliban" - a populist appellation concocted by Germany's biggest tabloid newspaper, Bild.

"Guantanamo is increasingly seen as an irritation and not a scandal of a democracy," explained publicist Roger Willemsen, who published a series of interviews with detainees at the camp in his book, "Hier spricht Guantanamo" (Guantanamo Speaks). Now "Five Years" is bringing the scandal to the big screen.

What would I do if I was imprisoned for almost five years? How would I survive if all of my rights - air to breathe, my private sphere, the most important years of my life - were simply taken away? This is the questions young director Stefan Schaller asked himself a few years ago when he first began to work on the politically explosive material for his film.

Schaller began his studies at the Film Academy in Ludwigsburg in October 2005. However, his interest in Murat Kurnaz was piqued before that time. "Even before my degree at film school I followed the case attentively and met Murat's lawyer, Bernhard Docke," Schaller said.

Inside Guantanamo

Schaller's piece, filmed in Brandenburg and the Babelsberg Studios, focuses almost entirely on two people: Murat Kurnaz and Gail Holford, a US interrogation specialist who questions Bremen-born Kurnaz and tries - unsuccessfully - to extract a confession.

Dramatic but never sensationalized, the style of the film, almost like an intimate piece of theater, makes the work all the more absorbing. The political intrigues in the background, the refusal of the German state to allow Kurnaz to return to his home country after being proven not guilty, and the degrading policies governing the treatment of prisoners during the Bush era are issues Schaller's film more or less ignores.

A scene from Stefan Schaller's film 5 Jahre Leben

Murat Kurnaz was detained, interrogated and tortured for five years at Guatanamo

What it does show in lucid detail, however, is the daily torture of camp detainees in Guantanamo. The film is a metaphor for political failure, Schaller said.

Abuse of human rights

In the foreground of the film is the very human drama of an individual crushed by arbitrary state power. It is, Schaller explained, a "personal answer to the question of what Kurnaz had to endure in order not to give up: the realization that in the end it was all about forcing a confession from him in order to legitimize his detention. […] From a cinematic point of view, we were primarily interested in psychological aspects of such a long, unjustified period of detention."

Articulate and dramatic, but never speculative or reduced to cheap gratuity, "Five Years" tells the story of a one individual's fate, while keeping the issue of human rights abuses in focus.

In January, the work won two prizes at the Max Ophüls Festival in Saarbrücken. Now it's time for the young director to make his mark on German cinema.

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