The concept of mobility underlies On the Bride’s Side in multifarious ways: its participants embark on an illegal cross-continental journey while the spectre of a better life invests the documentary with hope. The film’s focus is displaced refugees, its characters a group of Palestinians and Syrians displaced in Milan, and their own destination the greener pastures of Stockholm, where immigration laws are said to be less strict. No direct train links these two countries and the highways are flanked by police, so a trio of Milan-based activists, all friends of the small diaspora, concoct a ruse to disguise their comradeship as a wedding party en-route to the reception.1 It is an appealingly bizarre image, and a stunt: the bridal dress flows as two convoys of immigrants are whisked through central Europe.
This is a conceit that implies high stakes and subterfuge, but Antonio Augugliaro’s documentary is more interested in inquiring into grievance. Personal narrative sustains the transit. The convoy speak with gravitas on lofty topics, the camera in close-up as Europe, lensed largely by misted car windows, zips by in the background. Tasnim, playing bride, offers a teary protest against a world divided despite sharing a sun, and her pretend fiancée, Abdallah, writes a lament for the hundreds who died at sea in one panicked exodus from Syria. The 14-year-old, Syrian-born rapper Manar, all cheer and adolescent wit, lays verse that punctuates the film’s solemn tenor and provides additional testament to the collapse of national boundaries.
On the Bride’s Side earnestly tackles an issue so pertinent that to be a detractor feels almost unethical. At any rate, here goes: this movie is burdened by its own pathos. Auguliaro’s interviews are filled with appeals that often abstract the personality making them; they rarely respond to the contours of the group’s journey and the excessive tragedy begins to slump. An immigrant says, “I need to sleep,” and the camera lingers as if the man’s simple admission is powerful enough to fissure the Earth he stands on. Elsewhere, the camerawork darts and re-focuses in preparation for master coverage that never eventuates.
The most difficult leg of the journey is at the beginning: a small, steep mountain impasse through which the bridal party, coiffed and clad in formalwear, trudge from Italy and into France. It’s an encapsulating moment for the documentary – the party scrambling up the countryside, their formalwear catching on twigs – but one in which the shutter of an off-screen camera is equally telling. In On the Bride’s Side, pity is part and parcel with this kind of artifice, and the impression it creates is occasionally that of a stunt. Part of this is the fact that refugees take on invented roles within the wedding party, proxies of a more privileged existence that the film doesn’t really interrogate. And the likelihood of the group’s leaders being charged with civil disobedience is unclear, as is the question of why why Stockholm’s immigration policy bests those of Milan. These questions are buried, and the movie’s legitimacy as a journalistic document is blemished.
As a piece of activism, it could do with some context. “Even if they arrest me, the important thing is that your dream comes true and you get there,” the poet and organiser Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry bids his soon-to-be passengers in an early scene. It’s an awkward gesture of martyrdom, but one typical of the whimsy that ultimately comes to characterise the film. The fates of people taking the same route under actual people smugglers are all but left to the wayside. These people are mentioned anecdotally at pit stops, and this at least assuages to some extent the impression that the trip is a courageous act rather than a desperate one.