On the Bride's Side: sharing the refugee's journey

6 minutes to read
Column
Thao Nguyen
02/10/2017

In the mainstream media discourse, migrants and displaced persons are commonly described in terms of figures. This numeric portrayal omits the human side of these individuals, which is even more diminished by metaphors evoking the idea of invasion, which present them as a threat. On the Bride’s Side (Del Grande, Augugliaro and Soliman Al Nassiry, 2014) is a documentary that seeks to counteract this type of dehumanizing representation by revealing the lives behind the numbers. 

A bride, a groom, and, among the wedding guests, a writer, two poets, two former dissidents, a father and his aspiring rapper son, went for a jovial road trip across Europe. The perspective sounds promising, imbued with the ecstasy of freedom and adventure typical of road movies. Now imagine another story: a group of Italians helped five Syrians and Palestinians to illegally cross five European borders on a journey of 3000 km from Milan to Stockholm. The picture seems less idyllic, right? 

Yet, both scripts are only two different ways of telling the same real-life story, one that is poignantly told in On the Bride’s Side. Gabriele Del Grande, an Italian journalist known for his blog Fortress Europe on migration in the Mediterranean Sea area, and Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry, a Palestinian-Italian poet and editor, met Abdallah, Ahman, Mona, Alaa and Manarin in Milan. The former, fleeing the war in Syria and entering Italy through Lampedusa, wanted to seek political asylum in Sweden. Gabriele came up with the idea of faking a wedding procession to aid his friends in safely reaching their dream destination, because “What border policeman would ever stop a bride to check her documents?”. 

What started off as a crazy joke of a “a bunch of romantics” became an audacious four-day journey from 14 to 18 November 2013, in which legal borders are irreverently challenged by a solidary and supportive side of Europe committed to defend the universal rights of humans. The film clearly positions itself as a political act of civil disobedience that defies the increasingly hostile immigration policies in Europe, as has been demonstrated by the multiplication of border controls even within the passport-free Schengen zone.

On the Bride's Side  - Trailer 

 

In the first version of the story, we hardly question the existence of borders. The protagonists are defined by their occupations, not by their passports. It is assumed that the road is unconditionally offered to them. However, in the second version it is the central problem: individuals are denied access through borders because of their passports. The line is brutally drawn between those who are granted the freedom of movement, and those who are not. The choice of words in the second script is familiar to mainstream discourse on migration, that primarily defines individuals by their belonging to a state, which undoubtedly carries a discriminating connotation, since not all nationalities are equal when facing European borders. The example of the two scripts has proven how such a “reality” is a social construction. Consequently, it means that alternative ways of talking about the migration situation in Europe are possible, and they could contribute to shaping another perception of the issue.

 

Positive portrayal

How could refugees be represented in a way that does them justice? Data and statistics can be used to break negative stereotypes about the refugee crisis by exposing overlooked facts. However, as argued by Gabriele Del Grande, figures are insufficient to make people relate to others on a personal level and to affect the public conscience: “The value of “I’m with the bride” is giving a name to people, five people, not five thousand”, he said. The purpose of the film is to reveal human lives behind abstract figures.

On the Bride's Side thus offers a positive, decent and highly intimate portrait of people who are often reduced to helpless victims, only worthy of consideration when they can prove their usefulness or when they are dead. It thus reverses a rhetoric relying on sympathy with the less fortunate, which can get condescending. In fact, the film shows a rather peaceful journey that ran smoothly without any border officials stopping the "illegal immigrants" and their "smugglers". The film is not light-hearted either, as it is interwoven with the characters’ reminiscence of their experiences of loss and fear in the war. However, their hardships are left behind, as they look into the future, which is filled with hopes and dreams. The role of music is prominent in the film, endowing it with a festive mood that softens the harshness of reality. Above all, the unobtrusive camerawork has provided the characters with a space of comfort in which they could tell their own stories. It makes them feel uninhibited and trusting enough to fully express themselves. It is the understanding eye of a friend who says “I’m in this with you”. We see the characters as people who are similar to us and not as an Other, with whom we share the same values of family, friendship, and beauty, as well as the feeling of homesickness. We do not feel pity for them; rather, we admire their talents, their beauty and their bravery. This positive image has the potential to counteract the compassion fatigue resulting from incessant exposure to images of suffering.

Direct experience

The interest of personal stories is indeed significant, however, the film evokes a response that surpasses or is of another order than compassion. The filming technique used and the sense of constant transit gives us the impression of sharing the same reality with the characters. We are compelled to share their experience, at least for the duration of the film, and this “being with” is meaningful in itself in the way that it transcends verbal communication. The use of music contributes to enhancing this strong sense of presence by transporting us to another reality, the same way it transported Tasneem and Gabriele away while they were stuck in the middle of the deafening bombs in Syria. Again, music, by its connective power, reinforces the idea of similarity. Consequently, there is a relationship that is established between viewers and the characters that relies on the fact of being together in the same reality. Such a relationship, i.e. how we relate to others, could be a model for how we would actually relate to the same subjects in real life. The film calls for a moving toward the acceptance of otherness; it is an exercise that enhances our sensibility and our ability for care and attention.

We are compelled to share their experience, at least for the duration of the film, and this “being with” is meaningful in itself in the way that it transcends verbal communication.

I was struck by the last minutes of the film, when the group took the train from Copenhagen (Denmark) to Malmö (Sweden) – the last border to cross. I held my breath as the train came closer to the destination, while the characters’ faces lightened up as they held each other’s hand tightly. Then, when they stepped down on the platform, all my fears were released as they bursted into joy, not without a slight tinge of nervousness. When they danced on the empty square, I could taste freedom on my lips as tangible as the champagne splashing out from the bottle that they opened. This sequence touched me so deeply, precisely because it brought me back to my own experience. Last September, during a trip to Copenhagen, my friend and I wanted to visit Malmö, the Swedish city located at only a train away from the capital of Denmark. However, we were notified us that there would be ID checks "because of the refugee situation". As some of us did not bring our passports, we decided not the take the risk. For us, it was just an unchecked item on our bucket list. For these Palestinians and Syrians, it was a question of life and death. Their journey took place by the end of 2014, and my trip took place exactly two years later. Border checks between Sweden and Denmark were introduced in January 2016 as an effort to regulate the increasing arrival of refugees to Sweden. Needless to say, had they been travelling today, they would not have been able to seek protection and fulfill their dreams. 

The fact that I was sharing the same borders in reality with these individuals caused a stunned awareness. By taking us on the road with them, the film inevitably raises the question of what we would do if we were put in the same situation. The refugee's journey is not some abstract story anymore, and it does not leave us indifferent. We need to make stories like On the Bride's Side and the framing it gives to people fleeing war and conflict more visible in the public debate, if we want to start taking the refugee crisis seriously.