'On the Bride's Side': Choosing humanity in the refugee dilemma

Nourhan Tewfik , Wednesday 25 Nov 2015

On the Bride’s Side documents the journey of five Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Italy to Sweden

On the Bride
Still from On the Bride's Side (Photo: Zawya)

“They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You're a refugee.”
-Mahmoud Darwish

Who says a wedding gown cannot embolden activism, suggest the futility of borders, and celebrate a shared humanity? On the Bride’s Side, a hybrid documentary that recounts the four-day journey of five undocumented Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Milan, Italy to Stockholm, Sweden, does that and more. The film will make its Egypt premiere during the upcoming Panorama of the European Film, with screenings on 1 and 2 December at arthouse cinema Zawya, and 3 and 5 December at Cinema Karim.

The story, as mentioned on the film’s official website, and explained by the directors themselves in the opening scenes, began when Italian journalist Gabriele Del Grande and Palestinian poet and editor Khaled Soliman Al-Nassiry met Abdallah Sallam, a Palestinian university student who had fled the war in Syria, in Italy. Sallam had survived a shipwreck while crossing the Mediterranean before he was able to secure entry through the Italian island of Lampedusa. Soon after, Del Grande and Al-Nassiry met four Syrian and Palestinian refugees who had similarly bitter stories and had barely survived the boats of death: Ahmed Abed and his wife Mona Al Ghabra, and Alaa Al-Din Bjermi and his son Manar, an aspiring rapper.

Adamant to help, Del Grande, who had just come back from Syria where he was documenting the war and had witnessed the growing impossibility of life there together with Al Nassiry, decide to devise a plan and help all five refugees reach their aspired destination, Stockholm.

And what other than a fake wedding could ensure the smoothness of such a trip and an escape from the possibilities of detection and arrest by border policemen?

As the film commences, the text running under the opening credits immediately contextualizes the Syrian refugee crisis, a result of the nearly five-year-old Syrian war, for the audience:
“In European embassies their passports are worthless. And so, month after month, thousands of Syrians and Palestinians turn to Libyan and Egyptian people smugglers to be ferried across the Mediterranean on dilapidated, makeshift boats.”

On the Bride’s Side thus situates itself as a response to such catastrophe. It wants to renegotiate the idea of borders, challenge restricted movement, and last but certainly not least, it wants to embrace a humanity crippled by exclusionary policies and an indifference towards one another's agony.

As such, the film employs a rejectionist stance towards the international political system, stresses on the futility of borders and the importance of revising asylum laws. Together, a group of Europeans risk being accused of human trafficking, and refugees risk being repatriated or simply sent back to remnants of a home, as they take the journey to Stockholm and aspire for better lives. As such, it is rather difficult to de-situate this activism from the context of this film.

Moreover, the fact that On The Bride's Side was completely crowd-funded hints at an audience that embraces and practices this activism, too.

Despite being aware of the risks such help entails, which include charges of smuggling "illegal immigrants" and the possibility of 15-year jail sentences, Del Grande and Al-Nassiry proceeded to execute the fake wedding plan, and fetched a possible candidate for the role of the bride.

On the Bride
On the Bride's Side film crew, including the five Palestinian and Syrian refugees, as well as the wedding guests. (Photo: Zawya)

Their Italy-based friend Tasnim Fared, a Palestinian activist who worked in Syria where she encountered death and battled the loss of friends, agreed to play this role. Director Antonio Augugliaro, together with Del Grande and Al Nassiry, co-wrote and co-directed the documentary.

On 14 November 2013, a 23-member group comprising Abdallah as groom, Tasnim as bride, Gabriele, Khaled, Ahmed, Mona, Alaa, Manar, an array of friends as fake wedding guests, and the film crew commence their four-day journey towards Stockholm.

As the journey begins, a brilliant script treatment allows the refugees the space to revisit the tragedy of the Syrian war, and the calamities encountered on the boats of death. As such, On the Bride’s Side refuses to limit itself to the unfolding journey to Sweden, but rather provides the audience a genealogy of each refugee’s story. In one bitter scene, Abdallah proceeds to write the names of some of the 250 refugees who died in the shipwreck he survived, and whose names he had written on a piece of paper.

The film’s underlying message reveals itself when Tasnim, responds to Abdallah and writes, “The sky is everybody’s. No borders” across the wall. 

The journey’s documentation unfolds against the backdrop of singing interludes, which given the film’s mood of wedding festivities, come out as rather normal. The film’s score communicates the grief of a lost homeland, transfers feelings of rejection, fear and anticipation, all the while succumbing to each protagonist’s will for life. Folk songs, dabke dancing, and poetry recitals unfold as the protagonists celebrate the bride and groom. Little Manar’s attempts at rapping also build into this centrality of music.

On the Bride’s Side allows space for imagining the future too, as all five refugees proceed to share their dreams and life plans once they seek asylum in Sweden.

As for the cinematography, it respects the film’s striking realism, and communicates the poignancy of such a journey by closely following the protagonists, and employing intimate zoom-ins.
As timely as ever, On the Bride’s Side rejects grey zones and unclear stances. In times of decaying humanity, one must choose a side and it better be with those whose lives and rights were unjustly shattered by the conflict. 

On the Bride’s Side was selected for the 71st Venice International Film Festival where it won three special awards from the jury. It was also screened in an array of international documentary festivals including International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Festivaland Documentary Edge Festival (DocEdge).

On the bride's side - Official Trailer from Gina Films on Vimeo.


Tuesday 1 December, 10:30am
Zawya, (Odeon Cinema) 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Downtown

Wednesday 2 December, 3:45pm
Zawya, (Odeon Cinema) 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Downtown

Thursday 3 December, 3:45pm
Cinema Karim,  15 Emad El Din St., Downtown 

Saturday 5 December, 1pm
Cinema Karim, 15 Emad El Din St., Downtown 

Check the full programme here.

Ahram Online is the main media sponsor of The Panorama of the European Film and of Zawya.

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