On the Bride’s Side: Italian film captures mad odyssey of Syrian refugees

(published by France24)

The Italian documentary “Io Sto con la Sposa” (On the Bride’s Side) follows the journey of five Syrian refugees staging a fake wedding to cross Europe safely and reach their Promised Land: Sweden.

It was the sort of chance encounter at a railways station that’s only supposed to happen in the movies, not real life. But then truth can be stranger than fiction and so, on that fateful afternoon in October 2013, as a hopelessly lost Abdallah Sallam wandered around Milan Central Station, he had no idea his life was about to change forever.

Actually, Sallam was heading nowhere that afternoon – although he didn’t know it.

The slight, doe-eyed Palestinian-Syrian immigrant had landed in Italy from the western Syrian city of Latakia. He didn’t speak a word of Italian, which was not helpful for his mission impossible: finding the next direct train from Milan to Stockholm, capital of Sweden and Garden of Eden for Syrians fleeing a conflict that has killed around 160,000 people and displaced millions.

On that very day at that very station, Gabriele Del Grande and Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry did not know that they too would be embarking on a wild adventure that would lead to Stockholm – and perhaps the Venice Film Festival in September.

Currently in post-production, the documentary-meets-road movie – which they co-directed with Antonio Augugliaro – follows the crazy journey of five Syrian refugees faking a marriage to cross Europe without arousing the suspicions of European immigration authorities.

The seemingly insane idea was born after a desperate Sallam heard the two men at the railway station speaking Arabic (Nassiry is an Italian-based Palestinian poet). Since the two Italian residents could not put Sallam on a train to Stockholm as there is no such train, they invited the young Syrian for a coffee instead.

That’s when the plot to get Sallam and a group of Syrians to Stockholm was hatched. The group comprised of Alaa Bjermi and her 12-year-old son Manar, who dreams of becoming a rap star, as well as Mona Al Ghabr and Ahmed Abed.

In September 2013, Sweden announced that it would grant permanent residency to all Syrians seeking asylum, the only country in the EU to do so. Today, more than 30,000 Syrian asylum-seekers have settled in this Nordic country of 10 million inhabitants.

To achieve that asylum, these migrants are ready to risk their lives. Sallam braved the waters of the Mediterranean on a boat that sank between Malta and Sicily in October 2013, killing 250 people. He was one of the few survivors.

Bjermi and her son were turned back at the Swiss border after putting their lives at the mercy of a people trafficker. Like Bjermi, Ghabr and Abed had to escape from a refugee centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, more than 15,000 Syrians have passed through the centre.

Laughing at ‘Fortress Europe’

These are stories of desperation that Del Grande and Nassiry, the two film-makers, are not indifferent to. In many ways, “On the Bride’s Side” is not just a story of Palestinians and Syrians pursuing a dream. It also presents a different side of Europe that is not often acknowledged in the media or by governments – a Europe that is critical of the seeming indifference and inhumanity of tightened immigration laws and, as the film’s website notes, a transnational, supportive and irreverent Europe that ridicules the laws and restrictions of the Fortress Europe.

Del Grande is an Italian journalist specialising in migration issues. He runs the blog Fortress Europe and has been reporting from Syria since the conflict began. Nassiry, the Palestinian poet, has lived in exile in Italy for several years.

“Thousands of people fleeing the war in Syria come every day to Milan via Lampedusa. Sometimes, we receive them before they leave for Sweden with the help of people smugglers. We wanted to help, but no one knew how to do that,” explained Del Grande in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.

Slowly, that day, as the afternoon coffee session gave way to a dinner of
spaghetti, Del Grande launched his plan. “What if we organised a fake marriage?” he asked, without much conviction.

At first, everybody laughed. But finally the harebrained and rather desperate plan began to take route.

They finally decide to help them complete their journey to Sweden –by faking a wedding. The reasoning being, that what border guard would demand the passport off a bride and her wedding party? Plus, the Italians could also hopefully avoid getting themselves arrested as traffickers.

Sallam would be the groom. Since the group could not find a Syrian refugee to play the bride, Del Grande’s friend Tasneem Fared, an activist of Syrian origin, donned a pristine white wedding dress. Bjermi, her son and Abed would be family members. And to make it more credible for the authorities, nine Italian friends were roped in as wedding guests.

“We took them to the hairdresser, we bought them wedding clothes, two weeks later, we hit the road,” explained Del Grande.

‘Time of the Gypsies’ trail through history

On November 14, 2013, this wild ride, reminiscent of the wedding party in Emir Kusturica’s film, “Time of the Gypsies,” proceeded north through Italy, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark and finally, Sweden.

“The idea of making a documentary came as an afterthought. Initially, we just wanted to help them achieve their goals,” said Del Grande.

Antonio Augugliaro, a documentary and short film-maker, joined the adventure. A team of six technicians volunteered their services for the self-funded and self-produced film (the film-makers launched an Internet fund-raising drive).

The scenes were not written. Only four stops of the odyssey were chosen with an eye on the film – such as the western Italian town of Ventimiglia at the French border, a historic crossing point for undocumented Italian migrants to the southern French city of Nice.

“It was a symbolic place for us because it was the former border crossing that Italians on foot took to go to France in the 1950s. We were very excited to make this journey in the footsteps of our forefathers,” said Del Grande.

Risking prison terms and disobeying laws

Over the course of more than 2,000 kilometres, strong bonds were formed, which enriched the film further. “This documentary is a comedy where there is no question of victimisation. This is a story of friendship that connects the two sides of the Mediterranean,” said Del Grande.

The friendships also encouraged the three filmmakers to take risks: they faced up to 15 years in prison if they were caught helping undocumented migrants illegally cross European borders.

“When we started this project, it seemed like we were about to do something illegal. But when we got to know the people we helped, we realised it was a completely normal humanitarian action,” said co-director Augugliaro in an interview with the Franco-German TV station Arte.

Beyond the humanitarian aspect, “On the Bride’s Side” is also a form of political engagement, with Del Grande, Augugliaro and Nassiry campaigning for disobeying Europe’s migration laws and policies “which are willfully blind to war and the fear of death.”

According to Frontex, the EU agency responsible for external border security, 6,825 people trying to reach Europe have drowned in the waters off Lampedusa since 1994. Activists and rights groups however put the figure at around 20,000.

For these men and women who have escaped the worst, the memory of those who perished on the way haunts them everywhere. On a Danish pontoon, with her white tulle wedding dress dancing with the sea breeze, Fared reflects on the human toll of this perilous journey to Europe. “It’s hard to imagine a place as beautiful as the sea can swallow small children. So many have died trying to get from one place to another. Children should be here to play, not to die.”

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