Eran Riklis isn’t the first filmmaker to recognize that a marriage impeded by a checkpoint is a ready-made metaphor for life under Israeli occupation. Yet unlike Hany Abu-Assad’s Rana’s Wedding, Riklis’ The Syrian Bride is not about Palestinians but about an even more misunderstood group, the Druze.
“Sometimes people say, ‘The Druze? Who are they? Where are they?’” the 52-year-old, Tel Aviv–based writer-director laughs. “But I don’t think it really matters. Audiences, whether they’re American or European or Asian or what have you, they seem to connect emotionally with the story.”
There’s a reason why the Druze are little known aside from occasional TV-news references to “Druze militias” in Lebanon. “They’re very secretive. Nobody knows what their religion is all about,” Riklis explains. “Historically, the Druze come from Islam. They broke away from Islam about 1,000 years ago. They’re also very small. There are not that many Druze, and historically they’ve been split between Syria, Israel, and Lebanon.
“In Lebanon, they’re part of the political history,” he continues. “In Israel, it’s curious, because they’re actually totally loyal to Israel. The Druze serve in the Israeli Army, and they’re actually considered very tough by the Palestinians.” The Druze in the Golan Heights, where The Syrian Bride is set, are, Riklis says, “Syrian citizens who’ve been occupied by Israel since 1967. And that’s why they have no defined nationality. In 1982, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, offered the Druze Israeli citizenship, which most of them refused.”
When a Druze woman crosses the Syria–Israel border to marry, she automatically loses her citizenship in her previous country and cannot return, even for a short visit. Thus Mona, the bride of Riklis’ title, will never again see the members of her contentious family after she clears the border to wed her fiancé, a man she has never met. It’s a dilemma Riklis first addressed in a 1999 documentary, Borders, which observed four stories on four different Israeli frontiers.
“I was drawn to this story,” he notes, because “it’s a good way to deal with the Middle East situation without being too obvious about it. Not with Israelis and Palestinians clashing in the streets of Nablus, which you see every day on the news, and it’s very difficult to compete with that.” The Druze situation is “a little bit out of the way. But it has all the ingredients, the politics and the traditions and all the other elements of the Middle East, and in that sense it was almost ideal.”
Although his movie is about a bride attempting to travel from Israel to Syria, Riklis says, “it mostly goes the other way. These weddings happen, say, about three or four times a year. I think it’s mostly brides who come from Damascus to the Golan Heights—which is interesting because they come from the big city to small villages.
“I’m sure there’s another film there, but someone else can do it,” he adds with a quick chuckle.
Riklis introduced his movie at last spring’s Filmfest DC, one of numerous festival-circuit stops in anticipation of a September 2005 release that was ultimately pushed back a full six months. However delayed, The Syrian Bride is at least getting a U.S. commercial run. It’s the director’s first film to do so since 1991’s Cup Final, in which shared soccer fandom allows Israelis and Palestinians to cross emotional boundaries.
Although The Syrian Bride was inspired by a Druze wedding he shot for Borders, Riklis says he’s “not a documentary filmmaker at all. My territory is really fiction. Borders was just a good way to get exposed to a situation. If you ask any given Israeli, most of them know about these Druze weddings. But they don’t know what’s behind this beautiful image of a bride on the border, which is a captivating image. So I think that for Israeli audiences, it was like watching a foreign film.”
In fact, The Syrian Bride is something of a foreign film for Riklis himself: Much of the dialogue is in Arabic, a language he doesn’t speak. “It’s like music,” he says. “You just understand what they’re saying because it came from something that you wrote. Also, Arabic is to a certain degree close to Hebrew, so you can feel it.”
Riklis collaborated on the script with a Palestinian woman, Suha Arraf, “first of all for the language, and just to make sure that there were no essential cultural mistakes.” In addition, he says, she brought a female perspective. “Once I decided to make a film about a Druze community, where the women are really oppressed, I felt that it was almost my duty to put the women in the center of the film.”
From the beginning, Riklis says, he knew the Druze dialogue couldn’t be in Hebrew. “Once you’re doing this kind of film, you can’t go the Hollywood way, in terms of seeing Nazi officers speaking English,” he explains. “We see Schindler’s List or The Pianist in English, and nobody says, ‘This doesn’t work.’ It works somehow. But I think when you’re doing a film like The Syrian Bride, I think you have to stick to reality.”
The movie’s array of languages, he notes, “is part of this border life. The film begins quite intensely within the family framework, then slowly, as the wedding day progresses, external forces come in, so the Hebrew comes in. And then when they get to the border, English comes in. All the bride wants to do is get married on this day. But suddenly these international forces are preventing her.”
Riklis shot in the area that inspired the story, which was no simple undertaking. “The village is 90 percent pro-Syrian, but the [other] 10 percent actually control the village, and they’re pro-Israeli. The mayor is really pro-Israeli. I had a lot of friends there, and they said, ‘Go with the pro-Syrians, because they control the streets.’ And that turned out to be a mistake, because in the end, you need bureaucracy to help you block off a street or whatever.”
The border crossing itself was constructed for the film, although on a site close to the real one. “We had to build it because no one would let us shoot on the Syrian side, obviously. And also the real border is a little bit boring,” Riklis says with a laugh. “It’s actually funny, because I met a lot of Israelis who served on the real border, and they saw the film and they said, ‘Yeah, I remember that.’”
An even bigger complication was that the Druze traditionally don’t approve of movies or theater. “The reality is that there are only about two Druze actors in Israel,” Riklis says. “And one of them is in the film, the guy who plays the husband, the tough guy. All the others are Arabs. At least those Arabs grew up in small villages in Israel. They come from a very similar background.”
Riklis was surprised to learn that some local residents had seen and liked Borders—but not too surprised. “They can hate films and everything,” he says, “but what they do is watch television all day. So I’m not sure [if] they saw my films on television, but they were aware of films.”
Riklis’ own awareness of films is, of course, more expansive. He spent the first seven years of his life in Montreal and New York, attended Yale University for a year, and lived for three years in Brazil. He appreciates mainstream American movies and is proud that Israeli cinema has achieved a higher profile in recent years.
Yet he sees an unbridgeable cinematic gap between Hollywood and Tel Aviv. “Do you go local, and by being local do you become universal? Or do you go universal as an aim, and in what language? Is it English? There have been a lot of experiments in Israel, and huge flops, with films that try to portray Israeli situations with American actors, let’s say. It never worked.”
Of The Syrian Bride, he says, “People say, ‘You made a brave film.’ And I say, ‘I don’t feel brave about it.’ I realize that it’s perceived like that sometimes. But when I look at films like mine, they probably don’t go far enough.
“I don’t think films have to be political,” he adds. “[But] I can’t run away from having some kind of reflection of what’s going on around me. It doesn’t matter if my next film is a broad comedy. I still feel it must have some kind of bearing on what’s going on.”—Mark Jenkins