A turning point in moving documentary filmmaking to a more imaginative world
January 6, 2017
It looked like a procession of imaginary joy, but it was draped with an aura of deep hidden sorrow. However, it was eventually crowned with the fulfillment of the refugees’ aspirations to cross into a safer and more stable homeland.
The story of the documentary On the Bride’s Side is the true story of five Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Milan who entered Europe via the Italian island of Lampedusa after fleeing the war in Syria. Hoping for a better life on the European continent, these five refugees crossed the distance from Lampedusa to the Swedish city of Stockholm. However, during their journey, they came across unexpected barriers and hardships, until they met with the filmmakers; the Palestinian-Syrian director Khaled Suleiman al-Nassiry as well as the Italian directors Gabriele del Grande and Antonio Augugliaro, who decided to help them reach Sweden.
The filmmakers proposed that the journey take the form of an Italian wedding with a dozen or so Italians and Syrians as the wedding ‘guests’. In this way, the Syrians could reach their destination and the filmmakers could produce a film that tells the world about refugees and asylum-seekers while drawing the world's attention to their suffering and life-threatening journeys. The filmmakers filmed the journey and produced a new and special documentary whose heroes were the refugees themselves, dressed elegantly in wedding outfits. In this way they avoided being arrested as human traffickers.
Film preparations began within the record time of two weeks; the cinematic assignments were divided and the equipment, venue, cars and wedding dress were secured. The ‘bride’ in question was an activist and quickly agreed to participate once asked. Through cameras, the stages and stations of the trip were filmed. Joy dominated the film's atmosphere from the beginning to end, as this film enabled these refugees to cross a distance of 3,000 kilometers in just four days. The humanitarian purpose of the film was achieved as some of these refugees were granted humanitarian asylum in the end, and the film crew received funding from a website after presenting the film on social media.
As both the film’s heroes and directors had achieved their goals, On the Bride’s Side premiered a new plot which is different from those presented in previous documentaries. The scenario was spontaneous and unplanned, and there were no sudden emergencies. It was all arranged in an orderly sequence. The documentary was produced in a harmonious manner, and in a way that chronicles the events with the accuracy of the time in which they took place. The documentary’s five characters played their roles very naturally showing the range of emotions they experienced from the beginning of filming until the end of the staged wedding. The staged wedding in question helped the refugees to cross a barbed wired border that had been erected in front of them by the bitter reality facing asylum-seekers in Europe, trying to flee the cruelty behind them.
Most of the film's scenes were inspired by the hardships and difficulties of the trip, which were depicted in both an anxious and courageous way, and depicting the cities through which they passed. These areas and cities were acknowledged using words or hints, such as ‘farewell- goodbye to Italy’ when crossing the razor wire fence along the border. Here, the viewers of the documentary are reminded of The Border movie by the director Duraid Lahham, which has a similar scene called the Crossing of the Dead.
The film’s footage was proportionate to the volatile situations of the characters and the different places through which they crossed. During the documentary, the characters recounted their stories and memories of their journey to Italy, where they arrived exhausted, miserable and anxious. The film conveys the pain and oppression suffered by these characters with many powerful scenes. In one such scene, the experience of Abu Nawar is narrated. Nawar is one of the survivors of the shipwreck off Lampedusa on the 11th of October 2013, where he saw 250 people drown. He expressed what he had been through by showing mixed feelings of grief, astonishment and perseverance. In the narration scene, he is joyfully holding a French wineglass while also expressing surprise at the European countries abandoning the refugees.
We also see the insistence of the child Alaa, a talented rapper, who insists on singing in Arabic. During the whole film, the focus was directed to show the concerns and confusion of the filmmakers synchronized with the actions of the refugee actors, so that the images succeeded in reflecting their transit to a new unknown reality. The language and sound effects of the film were professional. Some scenes were too long or outside the context of the film such as the scenes of the Bride, Tasnim, singing to the sea, poetry readings and meeting with poets in the midst of the journey. Yet most of the scenes were produced in a new context in harmony with the event and the message for which the film was produced.
The characters of the film were lively and strong; Tasnim, the young bride; Abdullah, the Syrian Palestinian groom who was one of the few refugees who survived after their boat sank near Lampedusa Island; Abu Nawar, and his Syrian wife Muna; the little rapper Alaa who is full of vitality and joy.
The documentary On the Bride’s Side was broadcasted on Al Jazeera English in 2016. The film was entered in the 71st Venice International Film Festival and won three special jury awards as well as the 2015 FEDIC Award, the Human Rights Film Network Award and the National Society of Film Critics Award. One year later, it had been given a theatrical release in Italy and was featured in many of the biggest international documentary festivals around the world (IDFA, HotDocs and DocEdge, to name a few). It has also been screened in 36 countries worldwide and broadcasted on Italy's SKY channel. This documentary was an unorthodox road movie as well as a true account of illegal immigration. The language was very sensitive and emotional. The film causes the viewer to sail through the contrasting feelings of its characters, presenting them in an intelligent way. The film pulls the viewer into the beauty of documentaries, turning its refugee actors into movie stars walking on red carpets after they were heroes fighting misery. This film is a turning point in moving documentary filmmaking to a more imaginative world.
“A documentary and yet a political act, a real and yet fantastic story; ‘On the Bride's Side’ is all these things at once.”
“For a language, which, without falling into the trap of victimism, was able to transform the monsters of our fears into the heroes of our dreams, the ugly into the beautiful and numbers into names.”
Scenes from the film