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Crossing Borders with Eran Riklis
By John Esther
April 21, 2006 - 2:47 AM PDT

"Whatever statements you make have some kind of political implications."

Eran Riklis's The Syrian Bride illustrates the ways in which geopolitics harnesses and harasses a family, with an emphasis on the plight of women who seek modernity in a culture inbred with tradition. Clara Khoury plays Mona, the bride to be. You would think she'd be happy on her wedding day, but she is not. Mona lives in the Majdal Shams, the largest Druze village in the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The groom (Derar Sliman), whom Mona has never met, is a Syrian television star. Thanks to the Israel-Syrian disputes over land, Mona may never visit her family again and nor can they visit her once she crosses the border to be married.

Mona will be leaving behind her infamous dissident father (played by Clara Khoury's real-life father, Makram J. Khoury), her docile mother (Marlene Bajjali), her entrepreneurial brother Marwan (Ashraf Barhoum) and her other brother Hattem (Eyad Sheety) - who was banished from the village for marrying a Russian doctor (Evelyne Kaplun) and has returned for his sister's wedding. But, most importantly, Mona will leave behind her sister Amal (Hiam Abbass), whose own marriage is at a crossroads when she decides to go back to school, which is against the expectations of her husband (Adnan Trabshi).

If the personal emotional toll were not cumbersome enough for Mona, Amal and the rest of the family, the wedding takes place on the same day Bashar al-Assad comes to power in Syria. With this transition of power come new bureaucratic measures regarding crossing the borders - which nobody really knows about, much less understands. Will Mona get married after all?

A critical and commercial success in Israel, The Syrian Bride was nominated for seven awards by the Israel Film Academy: Best Director (Riklis), Screenplay (Riklis and Suha Arraf), Best Actor (Makram Khoury), Best Actress (Abbass), Best Supporting Actress (Clara Khoury), Best Editing (Tova Asher) and Best Costume Design (Inabl Shuki). Perhaps due to its politically sensitive content, The Syrian Bride was not nominated for Best Picture nor did it win a single award.

Born in Jerusalem, raised in Brazil, Canada, the United States and England, where he went to film school, Riklis, 51, has been living in Tel Aviv for the past 21 years. His previous films include On a Clear Day You Can See Damascus (1984), Cup Final (1991) and Borders (1999). I interviewed Riklis via telephone when he was visiting Los Angeles last December.

How did the idea of the film come about?

Basically it started as a documentary I did six years ago called Borders, which was about the borders of Israel. One of the things I shot there was a marriage taking place on the border of Israel and Syria; that image stuck with me. Two years later I found myself going back there.

Which of the characters do you identify with the most?

The central character was always Amal in terms of telling the story through the perspective of an oppressed woman. Beyond that, I love all my characters.

What are your political intentions behind the film?

I tried to do a democratic film in the sense of trying to convey a realistic and honest picture of what's going on in the Middle East. Let the audience judge where it wants to go. I think it's more of a human approach, really. Honestly, I think when you do a film in the Middle East, or anywhere in the world these days, it is political. Whatever statements you make have some kind of political implications.

You co-wrote the story with Suha Arraf. Why did you choose her and what did she bring to the story?

After I wrote the actual storyline, I felt that I needed a woman because a lot of the characters are female. I thought if I bring somebody who's Arab, her understanding of Arab life would be helpful, and that's exactly what I found in Suha. She brought the experiences of growing up in a small village. Her upbringing is similar to the woman portrayed in the film, but she has the benefit of somebody who has lived in a more modern society for many years. She was the best of all worlds for me.

What do you think the film says about the patriarchy in the Druze community?

I think it says some pretty strong things. But I think what it says about the Druze society applies to many societies, certainly in the Middle East, and probably beyond. You'll find the same structure on a community level and on a family level. Things are terribly bound by religion and tradition and are not really changing enough to become more sensible in a modern world.

You use a lot of attractive women in the film. Is that fairly reflective of the Druze community or did you have an aesthetic in mind?

It's not intentional. It's probably characteristic of the women I saw in the village. I think it all came down to the looks of Amal and Mona and that applied to how the other women in the family would look.

According to the film's press notes, it is against the Druze's religious beliefs to exercise political power or hold political office. Yet Hammed is a political prisoner and dissident. Can you talk about that?

The Druze are normally loyal to whatever is the ruling power. But in the case of the Druze in the Golan Heights, I think they simply remain, at least in Hammed's case, loyal to Syria. It's a very realistic approach in the sense that if one day there's going to be peace, and they go back to Syrian rule, they don't want to be treated as collaborators. It's partly tradition; it's partly being pragmatic.

This Druze family deals with traditionally anti-Druze elements: miscegenation; political dissent; alcohol and tobacco consumption, and there are references to premarital sex. Is this family a microcosm of the Druze at large? Are the Druze at a crossroads?

I think so. I'm not an expert on the Druze. From my emotional and personal impression of life there, I think this family is a pretty accurate portrayal of the conflicts the Druze face today. It's a very interesting community. On the one hand, they are modern - we are not talking about some remote village in Afghanistan here. A lot of them are quite well educated and well off. On the surface, it seems like a totally modern society. Underneath the surface, you discover a lot of things which can become quite heavy. There is certainly conflict in that sense. People I know face these questions everyday. Do we go with our traditions? Do we not? But I think your average Druze, in the end, despite the questions, sticks with tradition.

The film takes place the day Bashar al-Assad came to power in Syria. That was an unusual day. How typical is Mona and her family's experience on any other day?

The reason I chose to set the film on the day he came to power was to give the film a regional-politics perspective. It is a day of change in the region - for both Syrians and Israelis. For the Druze, it's a hopeful day because maybe something will change for the best, or maybe things will get worse.

Amal seems proud of Mona's decision at the end of the film. What can we make of that?

Basically, both sisters are letting go of each other. Mona walks into a new future and so does Amal. We're not sure if Amal is going to go to the University or stay home. I think it's about letting go and facing the future. But what that future is going to be I'm not sure I even know.

How have Israelis and Syrians responded to you as the director and co-writer the film?

I'll never know about Syrians except the ones I meet in Canada or the United States. I don't have the option of checking out what's going on in Syria, if the people saw the film there - which I'm sure they have on pirated DVD. Israel's reaction was great. The film was a great commercial success in Israel and a great critical success. From the Israeli point of view, this film came at the right time. Everybody is really fed up with the bloodshed.

Will the film screen in Syria?

No, I doubt it. The fact that I'm Israeli always prevents the film from being shown in Arab countries.

The film was nominated for many Israeli Academy Awards. Do you think it was too politically volatile to actually win?

Yes. The Academy, being a slightly conservative body, found it difficult to give an award to a film that is mainly in Arabic and, politically speaking, too touchy. Which I have to say, now that I'm not angry at the Academy anymore, is a pity.

Why did you make the film in Cinemascope?

One, I wanted to give it a Western feel. I felt these people are in a landscape - physical, emotional and personal. It was just a feeling, basically. Two, the film being a democratic film, I think Cinemascope gives you that.

What obstacles did you encounter shooting in the village?

The village is mainly split between the pro-Syrians and the pro-Israelis. The problem was to balance that correctly in terms of getting the cooperation of the village and we managed to do it. The key word was honesty. From day one, I asserted that I'm not serving anyone. I'm telling a story and I want to do it as honestly as I can. I think people respected that.

What do you think about these interviews? Do you think they serve the film or do you think the film should just speak for itself?

Once people see the film, they can understand it emotionally even if they don't quite know where Syria is. An American might see the title and read the synopsis and say, "This about local politics in the Middle East; I'm not sure I want to go and see that." But I think once you read about it and hear what I have to say and what the film critic has to say, I think you get a different picture. I think it's important to give foreign language films exposure. Otherwise, they're always categorized as foreign although they can certainly be accessible to any kind of audience in the United States. With The Syrian Bride, I feel strongly about that.

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"Whatever statements you make have some kind of political implications."

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John Esther
... is a freelance culture critic based in Los Angeles.

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