On the Bride’s Side: A Conversation with Filmmaker Gabriele Del Grande

The documentary On the Bride’s Side details the journey from Milan to Stockholm by five undocumented Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing the war in Syria. The refugees and their supporters traveled as a fake wedding party complete with a bride in a white gown, hoping to avoid detection and arrest. We spoke with one of the directors, Gabriele Del Grande, about the film.

How did you come to be involved in making a film about refugees?

It happened by chance. I live in Milan which has become a gathering point and transit hub for Syrian refugees. They come here straight from the coast and travel on to their final destination elsewhere in Europe. You can tell the refugees because they all have sunburnt noses from their time at sea.

This was October 2013. I had been in Syria until September, and my friend Khaled [Soliman Al Nassiry] and I wanted to help some of these people. We were in the station and a man overheard us talking in Arabic. He asked us which platform the train for Sweden left from. I told him that unfortunately there was no such train, but we’d be happy to buy him a coffee and talk.

We quickly became friends with this man, Abdallah. He had survived the terrible shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa, when more than 350 refugees had died. Khaled and I said we had to do something for him, and we talked to Antonio [Angliaro] and came up with the idea of the fake wedding and the film. Antonio is a filmmaker, I am a journalist, and Khaled is a writer and a poet, and we combined our skills to make the movie.

In the film, Abdallah talks about the refugee ship sinking. It’s such a powerful scene.

At this point the high seas were not being patrolled and there were two devastating sinkings in the same month. Now with the Mare Nostrum policy, the Italian Navy is picking up refugees far from the Italian coast and bringing them to Sicily or the mainland and not to the island of Lampedusa, which is causing political problems with the xenophobic parties in the north of the country.

The passage is still extremely dangerous.

It is. People come to Italy from North Africa, the Horn of Africa—Eritrea and Somalia. Since the war started, half are from Syria. It is very difficult to get a visa to travel to Europe from these regions, so the only way they can escape a war, or look for a better life, is to take to the ocean. And because they have no documents, they have to pay a trafficker to take them to a sympathetic country like Germany or Sweden.

What is the solution?

We must allow people to travel. If Europe had a common system of asylum, and refugees were free to move from one country to another, they wouldn’t have to put themselves in the hands of the smugglers.

We have the experience of the Balkans, and the liberalization of movement from the new member states of the EU. Albanians used to need a visa to come to Italy, and thousands used smugglers to get here. Then the rules were changed. Now we have more than 100,000 people coming here across the sea when we could be issuing visas.

You believe that Europe has a responsibility to help these people?

Of course. Syria is a neighbor, and the war has caused seven or eight million people to become refugees or displaced people. Our Interior Ministry says that 11,300 Syrians came to Italy in 2013 by boat, and only 600 applied for asylum. The rest went somewhere else in Europe. This is a tiny percentage, and apparently we cannot supply them even with a minimum of services.

To me it is very simple. If my neighbor’s home is burning, I open my door. There’s nothing to consider—you let them in and figure out how you can share what you have later. If you shut the door, the neighbor is going to die.

We have the war in Syria, war in Gaza, war in Libya, the war against the Islamic State. The region is in a perilous state. I’m not just an Italian; the Mediterranean Sea is part of my identity and it has two shores: north and south. It’s my sea, these are my people, and we have to show solidarity.

I’m not the government, so I don’t make the decisions. But I know a lot of people feel the same way I do. The film proves that—we were supported by the biggest crowdfunding campaign in Italy.

There’s a strong sense from the film of people coming together to help, notably the bride herself, Tasneem Fared. Tell us about her.

She describes in the film how she stayed behind in Syria to continue her work as an activist even as her friends were being killed. She has a German passport and could have left at any time. When she finally left, we asked her to be our bride and she accepted.

She talks about living in Syria in this war. Despite all the death and destruction, there is so much life, she says. I want that to be the message of the film. More than 20,000 people have died on the Mediterranean in the last 20 years. But we are alive, and we have to fight to change what has happened. The Mediterranean should not be the mass graveyard it has been, but a sea of life and of peace.

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It will be difficult to prevent people from risking their lives on the mediterranean sea. As long as there is no hope in the countries where they live they will try to find a better place. That's exactly what european people did long ago when they escaped for America. The same thing in another time. Now Europe must offer an alternative for them in the regions where they come from. The rich countries can integrate thousands of those who aready reached the northern shores. But their education and skills are mostly not appropriate to the modern industrial societies. So Education and Job-Training in the home countries with a perspective of legal entry, say for a time, seems to be the best way to keep them away from these boats. That would be much more human and also very affordable.

Dear Helmut, thanks a lot for your comment. This is exactly the spirit of the film; to show solidarity with your neighbor when in need. Policy-makers should have a human approach as well as a long-term vision.

Americans need to know that immigration and refugees are not just problems in the USA. Our world is smaller all the time and we need to work together for a more equitable sharing of the planet.
We need to show this film at the second annual Greater Washington Immigration Film Fest.

An initiative from society is found more useful than waiting for the governments' hand; especially in cases like this one which occurs in many parts of the world.....

Of course, it is good to understand the experience of refugees.

However "We must allow people to travel" is not a viable contribution to the debate unless accompanied by some analysis of the consequences of allowing large portions of the population of third world countries to the first world, which is what "We must allow people to travel" means.

A large proportion of the population of many less developed countries would move to developed countries if given a chance. Any public opinion survey would show you that this is true in the Philippines, in Bangladesh, in the Stans, in much of Africa, in much of the Middle East, etc.

Humanitarian crises also will not stop. Wars have always been part of the human condition.

So the pressure is enormous.

An analogy. The street sleeper on the corner is worthy of my moral concern. However my house is crowded, and my concern for those to whom I owe one sort of obligation (the residents of the house, my family) has to be reconciled with my concern for those to whom I also have another moral duty (the street sleeper).

It is the same with immigration.

We really need to move beyond emotional appeals and the corresponding identity politics (specifically the articulation of the idea that those who oppose mass immigration are cruel and heartless). I have friends working assisting refugees' settlement, who also oppose mass immigration. Those positions are not contradictory. Why would they be?

Great article!
Especially liked this part:

" You believe that Europe has a responsibility to help these people?
Of course. Syria is a neighbor, and the war has caused seven or eight million people to become refugees or displaced people. Our Interior Ministry says that 11,300 Syrians came to Italy in 2013 by boat, and only 600 applied for asylum. The rest went somewhere else in Europe. This is a tiny percentage, and apparently we cannot supply them even with a minimum of services.

To me it is very simple. If my neighbor’s home is burning, I open my door. There’s nothing to consider—you let them in and figure out how you can share what you have later. If you shut the door, the neighbor is going to die."

Great article!
Especially liked this part:

" You believe that Europe has a responsibility to help these people?
Of course. Syria is a neighbor, and the war has caused seven or eight million people to become refugees or displaced people. Our Interior Ministry says that 11,300 Syrians came to Italy in 2013 by boat, and only 600 applied for asylum. The rest went somewhere else in Europe. This is a tiny percentage, and apparently we cannot supply them even with a minimum of services.

To me it is very simple. If my neighbor’s home is burning, I open my door. There’s nothing to consider—you let them in and figure out how you can share what you have later. If you shut the door, the neighbor is going to die."

Great article! I'm so grateful to the film for sparking this conversation. If anyone is in interested, my friend who attended the Toronto Palestine Film Festival wrote a piece on the same film, You can see it here at http://womensfilmcollective.com/

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