If there were a Golden Leon for audacity, crowd-funded Italian documentary “Io sto con la sposa” (On the Bride’s Side) would win hands down. Lifting the lid on the obstacles facing refugees seeking safe haven in Europe, the documentary of civil disobedience premiered at the Venice Film Festival 2014 to a 15-minute standing ovation. If you’ve ever thought life or travel were hard, this might just make you think again.
From the outset the filmmakers do things differently. Instead of the usual black tie photo-call, we’re treated to a procession of brides from the Hotel Excelsior to the Sala Grande. The “white carpet” may be a gimmick for attention but it does the job nicely and makes the front pages the next day.
The film itself opens with a party and a wedding proposal with a difference. The wedding dress is bought, haircuts are booked, suits are donned and everyone looks the part. But this wedding is fake. It’s a cover story for a convoy of cars transporting 5 Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Milan to Sweden* to claim political asylum, the logic being that Customs won’t stop a wedding party. It’s a bold assumption.
The 5 refugees, or “illegals” as the media normally vilifies them, entered southern Italy by boat landing on the island of Lampedusa near Sicily after fleeing civil war in Syria. Each year thousands pay traffickers for safe passage across the Mediterranean. Father and son Alaa and Manar, husband and wife Mona e Ahmad and “bridegroom” Abdallah are the lucky ones who made it safely to Italy. Many thousands don’t.
Helping them on their journey to Sweden are 3 pals, the directors of the documentary. An Italian journalist and free-lance writer, Gabriele Del Grande, who specialises in refugee issues and has covered the Libyan and Syrian wars from the front-lines since 2011. A Palestinian poet, literary critic and graphic artist, Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry, who also runs the publishing house “Noon” in the United Arab Emirates. And director Antonio Augugliaro, who works in the independent film scene in Milan and also for the Discovery and Sky TV channels.
But the 3 amigos can’t do it all themselves. They need the help of a select band of Italians and Syrians to act as the bride, drivers for the convoy, bogus guests or hosts for the group along the way.
It’s a daring idea. If Italians are caught helping refugees they can be charged with people trafficking which carries a penalty of 15 years in jail. And if the refugees are caught by Customs at any of the borders, they will be sent straight back to Italy, their country of entry, and straight back to square one. This is a huge risk for everyone involved.
The 90-minute documentary takes us over the old mountain-passes separating Italy and France, through Luxembourg, Germany and into Denmark. But the road trip itself almost becomes incidental as the refugees recount their stories so far. Each has seen fighting, death, terror and torture. Each has lost friends, family and fellow migrants before and during the terrifying journey from Syria across North Africa and then the Mediterranean. At times its difficult to listen, as the suffering inflicted by each bomb, rifle shot or airstrike recounted is almost unbearable. But we must listen and we must never forget.
Happily, despite what they’ve already lived through though, each also has hopes and dreams. For a new life for themselves and their families in Sweden. To be free from bombing, war and fear. To live in peace and freedom.
And each story is vital to bring the normally faceless “illegals” to life, to give them a voice and make them real. Its not all death, destruction and defeat though. There are some lighter moments. We discover, for example, that teenage Manar raps, to the enormous pride of his deep-thinking Dad Alaa. Quiet Mona and her outgoing husband Ahmed are the picture of love and can’t wait to send for their children. And Abdallah just wants to settle down to start a family.
Sounds like the plot of a movie doesn’t it? But this is a true story of a road trip that started in Milan on 14th November 2013. It took 4 days and covered 3000 kilometers aiming for Stockholm. Sadly its a journey that thousands don’t get the chance to make though and their lives are commemorated after the premiere on the Lido beach. But if you’re wondering whether Abdallah, Mona, Ahmad, Manar and Alaa make it or not, you’ll have to watch the film!
Overall, the film is a roller coaster of emotions. From despair to delight to disbelief and back. The only spoilers I will give are that there are some winners and some losers. Del Grande et al succeed in highlighting the ludicrous European legislation that many thousands of refugees navigate each year. Its a spotlight on the obstacles faced by some of the most vulnerable, shell-shocked, stateless people at a time when we should be giving them our support. But as Syria is still at war, thousands of Syrians continue to seek refuge every day to escape the bombs and blockades. And consequently Italy continues to rescue hundreds of migrants from woefully un-seaworthy boats every week and, sadly, to recover hundreds more bodies from her shores every month. In the end, however, the documentary leaves you with a single thought – how precious is the right to travel freely and live without fear. I recommend you seek out Alaa, Manar, Mona, Ahmed and Abdallah’s story. I’m sure it will move you just as much as it moved us in the Sala Grande, Venezia, this week.
Official website – http://www.iostoconlasposa.com/en/#home
Film trailer – http://www.iostoconlasposa.com/en/#trailer
Gabriele’s Del Grande’s blog, Fortress Europe – http://fortresseurope.blogspot.it
General release – Yet to be announced, watch press for updates
*Note : European law says that refugees wanting to claim political asylum should do so in the first country they reach but many entering via Italy are doing so only because it’s the closest by sea, not their ultimate goal. The ideal destination of many is actually Sweden, as the government there has a good reputation for helping refugees and treating them better than other countries.
All film stills with permission of the filmmakers