Filmmakers Bride evokes borders of country, culture

The guests at this Middle Eastern wedding were more mournful than joyous. But even more troubled was the Druze bride. 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 day at the border in 1998. 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 screened at last 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 an offshoot of Islam, and the Druze people have been divided among several countries in the region.

The bride’s 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. 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. And this had all the ingredients to tell the story of the whole history of the Middle East.”

That’s precisely what he attempts in the fictional “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. But while Mona silently broods throughout the film, Amal gradually speaks up, defying village convention and bureaucrats threatening the wedding.

“Bride” won 16 awards on the festival circuit, making it perhaps the most honored film in Israeli history.

Riklis, who calls himself a “filmmaker without borders,” was recently in 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, Conn., Rio de Janeiro, London and Tel Aviv.

Attending an American high school in Brazil helped shape his worldview in the late 1960s, he said. 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.

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 a journalist for the Ha’aretz newspaper and won kudos for her documentaries on Arab life. 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 Hiam 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. Abbass found she “identified with my character on almost every level — on both feminist and political fronts.”

While Palestinians and Jews worked well together on the set, the movie initially drew ire from all sides.

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.

“The Syrian Bride” opens Friday, May 12 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal