Being Human 2017 – Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire
A Review of On the Bride’s Side (Io sto con la sposa) by Alyssa Girvan
Released: 2014 (Italy)
Directors: Antonio Augugliaro, Gabriele del Grande, Khaled Solimas Al Nassiry
Synopsis: The journey of five refugees fleeing the war in Syria as they travel from Italy to Sweden to find sanctuary. In order to cross various national borders safely and uninterrupted, they disguise themselves as a wedding party and document their journey on film as they move through a network of helpers across Europe.
I want to get one thing straight from the start, this is not just another review of yet another refugee film. We are currently reaching the saturation point of refugee films on the documentary market. Filmic trends come in these waves, producing a minority of screen gems while creating audience fatigue in the overproduction of films of the same genre. It happens with true crime, it happens with nature films, and it is happening to the refugee genre. However, as with almost all issues documentaries cover, the problems don’t end when the audience get tired of watching. It is within the context of the current documentary market that my review of On the Bride’s Side originates. While released in 2014 in Italy before the trend, I viewed the film in 2017 in Norwich long after the trend had become popular. Thus while created in the post-refugee documentary deluge, new viewers of the film will see it within this context of oversaturation.
I feel it is therefore important to create two distinct areas of analysis to both respect the stories being told while also fostering a productive critique of they way in which the stories are depicted. The first is an analysis of the story of these refugees and the unique perspective it brings to the refugee film canon. The second is a critique of how this portrayal stands as an actual film. With the current documentary climate good filmmaking is paramount in making one’s voice heard. Every refugees story is important, whether shown on film or not, however with the increasing volume of refugee films being made the story is, unfortunately, often not enough. Thus this review will touch on the unique characteristics the film brings to the refugee film cannon as well as provide a critique of some of its shortcomings. This is in no way intended to marginalise the important story voiced within the film, but simply to illustrate the benchmark now needed for refugee films to grab the attention of audiences upon their release into UK markets.
Let us now then begin with an analysis of the unique story of this film. Anyone expecting a high stakes adventure with near-miss border crossings and quick-fire dodging of the authorities won’t find that in this film. What is documented is something more. Being a refugee is not an exciting, action-packed adventure. It is a long and arduous trek from foreign city to foreign city as individuals move further away from their homes and closer to uncertainty. The majority of refugee films depict the initial stage of the story, as individuals flee their home countries to, hopefully, land safely in the welcoming arms of Western nations. On the Bride’s Side shows the more honest reality that shatters that fairy-tale ending. There are some European nations that are better than others when it comes to accepting refugees, thus the refugees of this film- Tasneem (bride), Abdallah (groom), Ahmad, E Mona, Alaa and son Manar- are leaving Italy for Sweden in hopes of finding a better life. With very few sets of clothes and barely any other possessions they are lucky to be connected to a network of helpers across Europe who help move them from country to country, crossing several borders all the while knowing that there is a chance they might be sent all the way back when they arrive in Sweden. The absence of gunfire and open conflict allows for an exploration of a secondary horror in the refugee journey- its almost painful length. Driving, sleeping and eating is often all there is in this journey. Punctuated with some brief evenings of entertainment, it is by far outweighed by the honest depiction of just how long these refugees have travelled and how far they still have to go. What is more, until they are granted refugee status by whatever nation accepts them the journey is all they have. There is nothing else they can do but keep going, accompanied by the European activists who too risk persecution for assisting their refugee kin across the borders.
By depicting the length of the journey the film also allows for introspection. While based on a fascinating premise of smuggling a fake wedding party across borders, the film does not touch on this plan at all after the establishing scene. The safety that this plan provides is instead a facilitator for more important individual narratives about how they arrived in Italy and their thoughts on their individual futures. Much of the dialogue is comprised of monologues each refugee is able to give as they travel by car or foot or train across Europe, each telling the story of how they got to Italy and their life before. From this there are real moments of sadness, such as Tasneem’s comment that ‘death is when other people die. The ones close to you’ as she tells of a friend who died the day after arriving in a refugee camp. Their exhaustion is evident both in their tone and what each of their stories say. They find escapism in listening to music throughout their journey while speculating about the uncertainty of their future as Alaa states there is a chance they might be sent back to Italy after arriving in Sweden. These dialogues, while common in other refugee films, are given a fresh face within the context of this journey and the wedding premise.
Within all of this comes what I consider to be the shining light of the film- MC Manar. The son of Alaa, Manar is an aspiring rapper who represents pure, innocent potential at risk of being unrealised due to his refugee journey. Refugee films too often make their characters identifiable only in terms of their past and current struggle, while Manar is a vibrant character that encourages not only sympathy for his struggle but genuine admiration for his talents as he freestyle raps during a party about his time as a refugee. More than any other character Manar is seen as more than a refugee, due also in part to his youth. It was refreshing to see the depiction of a young refugee not as a starving and helpless victim of conflict, but as a talented and intelligent individual with a view of his future beyond his current refugee status.
However, despite these merits the film encounters some stumbling blocks. For me, the most evident of these is the male-driven voice. Despite the title- On the Bride’s Side- it takes almost 40 minutes for Tanseem, the Bride, to speak about her story. The only other core female refugee is E Mona, who has her story told mostly through the narrative of her husband. There is thus great irony when Tanseem later states that ‘this war isn’t male only’. Refugee films are predominantly focused on male characters and children and it is unfortunate that On the Bride’s Side, with its female-oriented title, did not quite overcome this pitfall. While Tasneem’s dialogue certainly increases in the latter half of the film the absence of her voice, particularly in the opening scene in which the event is planned, reduces her her agency within the narrative of the film.
Secondary to this was the lack of stakes visually depicted in the film. While this is certainly a more honest story about the realities of the refugee struggle, in terms of the escalation of the films narrative there is a lack of suspense. Although there is frequent discussion about the dangers of crossing borders, there is little evidence of these dangers depicted. All border crossings are executed without encountering authorities or even a discussion of what has happened to those who have been caught in the past. Again, as a documentary this may be a genuine reflection of how their crossing was executed, but the lack of this element may be potentially disengaging. What is more, it may illustrate to audiences that the border crossing is relatively danger-free. Adding suspense is a clichéd formula, but it is used because it is a reliable method of making people invested in the story. Film is a visual medium and stakes need to be illustrated not just in dialogue but in the filmic world as well.
While these issues may prevent the film from being a stand-out example of the refugee documentary, ultimately the greatest strength of this film is the way it depicts the ongoing struggle refugees encounter as they flee their home countries. A refugee’s journey is not just one to Italy or England or Australia or Sweden. That is simply the first step on an interminable staircase to refuge. This film shows that our nations also create obstacles in those ensuing steps that prolong the suffering of refugees. This film is not one of piteous voyeurism where we look upon refugees fleeing a foreign nation and perhaps briefly consider how difficult it must be and how terrible those nations are; it is one that hopefully provokes introspection and self-critique of the cultures in which we live and the ways we make it difficult for fellow human beings to find a home. Arriving in Europe is not finding an immediate sanctuary. It is jumping from the frying pan and into the fire.
Following the screening of the film was a short Q+A with writer and Egyptian refugee Salah El Nagar. What Salah highlighted was the paradoxical generality and individuality of the refugee story. There are commonalities in the grand narratives of refugee journeys and settlement; they often pass through the same borders and encounter similar uncertainty in the path they take, but each refugee story is their own. Being a refugee is taking part in an individual journey within a collective experience.
Salah’s story provided yet another chapter to the story of this experience. After fleeing Egypt as a political refugee he moved through Italy and France before arriving in the UK. This was in October 2015. He was granted official refugee status one year later. One hopes that once given refugee status the uncertainty and isolation ends, however Salah’s summation of the ‘bureaucracy of the Home Office’ he encountered in the UK simply adds to the struggles of the refugee story. UK dispersal policies of refugees separated him from others in a similar situation, moving him to Birmingham and then Ipswich where he was unable to work and without enough income to do anything but stay at home. Salah emphatically stated ‘I hope to be busy, even just for one day’. While now, more than two years after arriving in England, he has work and 5 years limited leave to remain in the UK, there is still isolation. Perhaps this is a reflection of the insular nature of a county like Norfolk, but Salah stated he has few friends from Norwich. He works 40-50 hours a week, yet is never offered a cup of tea or asked about his day. He does not see his co-workers after work. Coming from a large and connected community in Egypt it is isolating to experience a culture so closed off.
Like all refugees, Salah is here not by choice but by circumstance. It is a circumstance that he makes the most off, working hard and attempting to make a new home. As a talented writer he is able to articulate his story but there are many who cannot. All he asks is that people reach out and treat him and other refugees as members of the community, friends, and people. ‘This is our home’, he stated, ‘we are looking for friends’.
Alyssa Girvan has a BA in Film and History and is currently studying a MA in Media and International Development at the University of East Anglia.