The guests at this Middle Eastern wedding were more mournful than joyous. But even more troubled was the Druze bride herself. All dressed up, she was stuck at a border crossing in the dusty demilitarized zone between Israel’s Golan Heights and Syria.
It wasn’t clear if she’d be allowed to cross for her wedding. And if she did, she might never see her family on the other side again.
Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis witnessed and filmed the incident, which became part of his 1999 documentary, “Borders.”
Now, the director has returned to this material in his searing, new feature film, “The Syrian Bride,” which is loosely based on that stressful 1998 day at the border. The film also confronts personal and psychological limits, especially those faced by women in traditional societies. And it’s generated controversy and won awards across many borders. The film will screen at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.
In the real-life episode, the bride from a village that became Israeli after the 1967 War was to marry a Druze from Damascus. The Druze religion is a medieval offshoot of Islam, and the Druze people have been divided among several countries in the region.
The bride’s listed nationality, like that of many former Syrians in the area, was listed as “undetermined.” This designation meant that once she crossed into Syria, she would never be allowed to return to her village; nor would her relatives be allowed to visit her.
Riklis lingered with his camera, hoping to shoot the nuptials. But the Syrian border official balked at the Israeli stamp on the bride’s passport, while his Israeli counterpart refused to erase the stamp. So the bride sweated for hours in the sun as her taffeta gown wilted.
“It was just a short sequence, but it obsessed me,” Riklis said. “It was the image of a bride in a white dress, in an almost Western setting, and having to deal with politics and bureaucracy, when all you want to do is get married.
“I quickly realized I had everything I needed to make a successful movie,” he added. “There was Israel, there was Syria and the people caught in the middle.
“What I’ve tried to do in all my films is to tell simple stories of simple people, set against the backdrop of local, regional and even world politics,” he said. “And this had all the ingredients to tell the story of the whole history of the Middle East.”
And that’s precisely what he attempts in his new, fictional work, “The Syrian Bride.” The title character is Mona (Clara Khoury) from the village of Majdal Shams, whose wedding day is the saddest of her life. Her arranged marriage to a Syrian actor, whom she has never met, will mean utter isolation in a strange city.
Her father, a recently released political prisoner, will be unable to see her off because he is prohibited from going near the border. Her brother, who was excommunicated after marrying a non-Druze, is also banned from the wedding.
Above all, Mona dreads losing her sister, the feisty Amal (Hiam Abbass), who is unhappy in an arranged marriage to a man who refuses to allow her to become a social worker. But while Mona silently broods throughout the film, Amal gradually speaks up, defying village convention, as well as bureaucrats threatening the wedding.
“Bride” joins the burgeoning trend of Israeli films — such as Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” — that tackle Middle East strife through intimate human dramas. It won 16 awards on the festival circuit, making it perhaps the most honored film in Israeli history.
“It’s hard to imagine a recent film that presents a more nuanced portrait of Israelis and Arabs, of Jews and Druze, of their equal capacity for heartlessness and generosity,” The Forward said.
Riklis, who calls himself a “filmmaker without borders,” spoke to The Journal from the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where he was researching a movie on globalization. The easygoing director said he felt completely at home in the foreign milieu, having crossed borders all his life. The son of a scientist who worked internationally, Jerusalem-born Riklis spent his youth, respectively, in Montreal, New York, Beersheva, New Haven, Rio de Janeiro, London and Tel Aviv.
Attending an American high school in Brazil helped shape his world view in the late 1960s, he said in unaccented English. Israeli pride was high after the 1967 victory, but Riklis’ American classmates fiercely argued over their own Vietnam War.
“This opened my eyes to a more nuanced approach to world politics, and made me aware that there is always another way of looking at things,” he said. “That later shaped my approach as a democratic filmmaker who tries to show all points of view.”
To reflect his heroines’ viewpoints in “Bride,” Riklis said he sought “an open-minded woman with a traditional Arab background” to co-write the drama. Because the Druze do not have a tradition of theater or cinema, he was unable to find a suitable Druze partner.
Instead, he pursued Palestinian Israeli Suha Arraf, who grew up in a Christian village in the northern Galilee, worked as journalist for Haaretz newspaper and won kudos for her documentaries on Arab life. Thirty-six and unmarried, brash and outspoken, she refuses to make documentaries on subjects such as female suicide bombers because she perceives them as cliched — the kind of film critics might expect her to direct — and “I am not a puppet,” she said from her Haifa apartment.
Although Riklis had tactfully depicted Arabs in his 1991 soccer film, “Cup Final,” Arraf was initially cautious.
“I don’t agree to work with just any Jewish filmmaker,” she said, briskly. “A lot of Jews want to make movies about Arabs, and there are a lot of stereotypes.”
Actress Haim Abbass had an even stronger response: “I thought, ‘Who … is this guy who is so interested in such intimate stories of Arab culture,'” she said from New York.
Riklis won over both women by stating that he did not represent Syrians, Israelis or Druze, but rather the truth. He added that he wanted to tell the story because “everyone knows about the Palestinians, but few realize the Druze were also occupied in 1967.”
While Riklis researched the film by spending time in the real village of Majdal Shams, Abbass prepared in a more private manner.
“I found I identified with my character on almost every level — on both feminist and political fronts,” she said.
The actress had grown up in a traditional Muslim village near the Lebanese border. While her parents were modern, the villagers weren’t. Abbass was severely criticized for refusing to wed her cousin in an arranged marriage at 18, for smoking and for planning to attend university to study theater and photography, which was not perceived as a woman’s profession.
She also related to the fictional Amal because the border had separated her own family.
“I knew that my mother’s sister was in Syria, and that my mother and aunt could never see each other,” she said. “I grew up acutely aware of the exile and distance caused by war.”
Jewish-Palestinian hostilities eventually led Abbass to relocate to Paris, where she won roles in Arabic language films, such as 2002’s “Satin Rouge.” “The Syrian Bride” is her first made-in-Israel movie, although the dialogue is mostly in Arabic.
While Palestinians and Jews worked well together on the set, the movie initially drew ire from both Arabs and Israelis. Druze viewers resented the depiction of how their tradition treats women. A Palestinian director dismissed the movie as “an Israeli liberal token job” and all but one Arabic film festival refused it.
Meanwhile, Jews complained that the Israeli characters are villainous. (Riklis insists they’re well-rounded border types.) The film became a critical and commercial success in Israel only after it won accolades and audiences in Europe; even so, it did not win a single Israeli Oscar.
Riklis said he wasn’t upset about the Oscars, because “Bride” has proven its universal appeal. Although inspired by that 1998 Druze wedding, “the movie transcends geography, because its really about all people at a crossroads, living with physical and emotional borders.”