Who would ask for a bride’s immigration documents?

Film
Italy
Migration
Refugees
Sweden
On the Bride's Side

On the Bride's Side is screening at the Venice Film Festival. © Marco Garofalo

It all started with a joke: ‘who would ask for a bride’s documents?’ One of those ideas destined never to see the light of day.

But a group of filmmakers decided to follow it through, and it became a documentary film that premières this week at the Venice Film Festival. ‘On the Bride’s Side’ is a road trip across Europe to smuggle five Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Milan to Sweden. Directors Gabriele del Grande, Antonio Agugliaro and Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry hastily put together a wedding party, enlisted a bride and a production team and embarked on the 3,000-kilometre journey, effectively turning themselves into smugglers. The film was entirely crowdfunded, with contributions from 2,541 funders from 37 countries, who raised a total of 100,651 euros. Gabriele del Grande tells Ylenia Gostoli what happened.

How did it all come about?

It all started by chance when we met Abdallah Sallam last November [2013], who was to become the groom. I was meeting Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry (one of the directors, himself a Palestinian from Syria) at the Milan train station for a coffee. Abdallah heard us speak Arabic and approached us – he was looking for a train to Sweden.

We found out he was one of the survivors of the 11 October 2013 shipwreck [when a boat capsized between Malta and Lampedusa, in southern Italy]. After listening to his story, we were trying to figure out how we could help, and that’s when we came up with the crazy idea of the wedding party.

It is also important to understand the context. We were in Milan, and at this time Milan was seeing a huge influx of Syrian refugees, who were landing in Lampedusa. Last year 11,000 arrived, and this year nearly twice as many, both Syrians and Palestinians from Syria.

Once in southern Italy, they would flee from the CIEs [Centres for Identification and Expulsion] and get to Milan, where they’d look for smugglers to help them go to Germany, France, Sweden, Holland, wherever they were headed. So in Milan, at that time, the biggest emergency was that of people fleeing the war in Syria.

Was there ever a conflict between the ‘political act’ of aiding refugees from Syria defy immigration laws, a crime that in Italy could lead to up to 15 years in prison, and attempting to make a documentary about it?

Sure, particularly on a practical level. In the sense that production times are usually much longer, many of the scenes could have benefited from more time to film. But the more we hung around with our cameras, the higher the risk of drawing attention to ourselves. We wrote the film’s structure in just two weeks, and filmed the entire thing in four days.

‘Right now, we no longer risk arrest, but someone could press charges against us, because the film is effectively the proof of what we did’

During the trip itself, we risked being stopped and in that case, we would have faced arrest on the spot for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Right now, we no longer risk arrest, but someone could press charges against us, because the film is effectively the proof of what we did.

If this does happen, the idea is to turn it into a trial of ‘fortress Europe’ itself, and to use the media to raise further awareness. Italy is currently in conflict with Europe over the Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to ask for asylum in the first European country they enter.

What has been happening is that Italy has been letting refugees transit to other countries, and obviously this has triggered a conflict with Europe, from which Italy has also been requesting more funds to deal with arrivals on its shores.

In fact, the EU [European Union] announced a few days ago that its Frontex border agency will complement and eventually take over from Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation, which was launched last year after 400 people died in two separate incidents off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013.

Rome says Mare Nostrum costs 9,5 million euros a month, and the controversy now is that the EU cannot guarantee it can match that price – its own Frontex Plus operation will depend on contributions from other European governments. Do you think this is the right answer to the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean? What about humanitarian corridors, which some international NGOs have called for?

Beyond names and slogans, what’s important is to understand whether Frontex Plus is a pushback or a rescue operation. If it’s anything like the original Frontex, it is yet another military mission, which won’t be of any use. This has been the strategy for twenty years, and for twenty years people have been dying at sea.

The solution is well known: to experiment in the Mediterranean what was done in Eastern Europe. All of Eastern Europe, up to the Balkans, is governed by free movement provisions, either because of EU membership, or because of the liberalization of visa regimes. Why are they ready to open up to the east, and in the south the only answer is war and military ships?

It’s about simplifying the rules. At the moment, obtaining a visa for Europe is practically impossible for people coming from countries considered ‘at high risk of immigration’ – all countries in Africa, the Middle East, and a few Asian countries – because of the amount of papers required.

The idea of a humanitarian corridor is a utopia, in my opinion. For example, if there were to be a humanitarian corridor from Libya, people would have to get there first. Getting from Syria to Libya, for example, is anything but easy at the moment. To simplify the visa system would simply mean: the neighbour’s house is burning, you open your door to him.

But governments across Europe are trying to deal with a rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and the opening of borders to eastern Europe has been under fire in countries such as Britain, where many are also opposed to handing more powers over to Brussels.

It is true that there are two levels to this issue. The first is to do with immigration policy. The second is to do with mobility.

‘The problem is that both Brussels and public opinion are mired in the belief that the whole world has got their bags packed, ready to come and ‘invade’ Europe’

The problem is gaining access to Europe; afterwards, it’s possible to find ways to regularize one’s stay according to national immigration policies, with work contracts and so on. The list of countries from where it is more difficult to obtain an entry visa (Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Morocco) is the same list of countries from where people seek illegal sea routes into Europe.

The tragedy that has been unfolding in the Mediterranean is a consequence of such policies. If you simplify them, you can allow those who cross the Mediterranean by sea to apply for a visa and fly to Europe instead of seeking illegal means, whether it is a Syrian refugee or a Tunisian looking for work. This could go hand in hand with strict immigration policies at the national level, but you have to give people the opportunity to travel, to knock on your door.

The issue with the Mediterranean is one of mobility. The problem is that both Brussels and public opinion are mired in the belief that the whole world has got their bags packed, ready to come and ‘invade’ Europe.

The media also plays a role in this. What are the problems with how migrants and immigration are portrayed in the media, and do you think your film fixes some of them?

The problems are many.

The first, in my opinion, is a problem that goes beyond the issue of immigration itself. Journalism in Italy is becoming more and more hurried and superficial, and good reporters aren’t put in the right conditions to do a good job. It’s a systemic problem, which keeps journalists glued to their desks relying on news agencies, and not out there.

The other related issue is with how foreign affairs are covered. Italy is a very ‘provincial’ country, unable to look further than its own backyard, and clearly this has consequences on the collective imagination. Mainstream media talks about the Arab world only when the IS behead a US journalist with a knife. It is a world told mainly through the prism of terrorism, and war. There are no stories, no people, only masses and ghosts.

We are telling five stories, we are telling an adventure and most of all, we are part of the story too. It’s a story of friendship, of people who embark together on an adventure that makes you want to cheer them on, not pity them.

Are the five refugees you helped safe in Sweden now?

The groom, Abdallah, and the couple, Mona and Ahmed – two veterans of the Syrian opposition – received asylum in Sweden. Manar, the child rapper, and his father Alaa, were sent back to Italy under the Dublin Regulation and were granted asylum there.

Gabriele del Grande is an independent journalist and founder of Fortress Europe, a website where he has been documenting the victims of Europe’s southern sea borders since 2006.