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A telling visual

Suha Arraf's "The Syrian Bride" was screened at the IFFI 2004. Her remarkable debut screenplay fleshed out a real life event with a keen eye for details, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

IMAGINE A small village (Golan Heights) in Israel-occupied Syria, with characters spanning three generations, belonging to an esoteric creed. The Druze community is not only secretive, but will not tolerate anyone marrying outside the community. Mona who cannot find a groom in her village, has to marry her TV star cousin in Syria though this means that she has to cross the border and once she does, she can never come back.

This human drama in "The Syrian Bride," screened at IFFI 2004, had an explosive socio-political situation, and conflicts burrowing into the psyche of every character — including those at the fringe of action — the policeman and the photographer.

Tension mounts as village elders threaten to ostracise Hammed if he allows his son with his Russian wife and child to return home for Mona's wedding.

Hammed insists on joining an anti-Israel rally on his daughter's wedding day — had he not been a political prisoner for 10 years? Nor will he keep away from the border security zone — he must bid Mona farewell.

The younger playboy brother adds mischief and colour, while supportive sister, Amal, will not allow her own marital discord to discourage the bride. Amal's husband is enraged by his daughter's love for the son of an Israeli sympathiser, and his wife's plans to join a college course. ``I will lose face,'' he screams.

The foreign daughter-in-law must face the clanswomen's scorn, ``Blonde, but can't slice tomatoes.'' The beautifully dressed bride waits in a room where the TV shows protest marches and presidential speeches.

"The Syrian Bride" weaves all these conflicts seamlessly into terse word and telling visual. ``That's what makes the writing enjoyable,'' says Suha Arraf, whose remarkable debut screenplay fleshed out a real life event with a keen eye for details. The strong script made it easy to raise funds from Germany and France. ``They understood everything completely,'' Arraf exults.

Her experience as a journalist and documentary-maker (with a series on the Gaza strip for the BBC) had taught her to look at political issues through personal stories. It had also brought her in contact with a wide variety of people. ``I've used their sayings.''

The bride is fraught with apprehension. She can't go home if her marriage fails! The endless wait at the check post becomes traumatic. Israel has stamped her papers with its seal, which the Syrian guard will not recognise as valid. Her groom is just a few steps away but she cannot reach him. When the gate is opened to let a U.N. vehicle through, Mona dashes across the border.

"The Syrian Bride"... this human drama weaves the explosive socio-political situation and conflicts seamlessly.

Arraf's background had taught her about the perils of border crossing. When Israel was formed, her Arab grandparents opted to stay back in their own land, but under military rule and curfew.

Things became easier in her parents' time, though not devoid of tension.

So how did the Palestinian Arraf feel about working with a Jewish director? ``I'm sure of my identity. I belong to the minority Arab community in Israel. Difficult? So it is to be a woman! That's why I wrote my story about strong women — the mother held the family together when the husband was jailed, Amal is a feminist who tells her daughter not to allow herself to be bulldozed, and Mona the bride too takes a decisive step in the end.''

Arraf and director/producer Eran Riklis hit it off straightaway. ``We worked together at every stage,'' she explains. This mutual trust has led to her second script on the Palestinian occupation in the West Bank at Gaza. However "Once Upon a Cloud" will be directed by Arraf and produced by Riklis.

``Israel is a country of criminals. You are occupying our land without shame,'' is the father's retort to the policeman in "The Syrian Bride."

How can an Israeli film be so openly sympathetic to the Arab cause? ``Some directors may have had a problem here,'' Arraf admits. Not Riklis. ``We tried to make a human story, not a political statement.''

However, as with anything set in the Middle East, the film cannot evade politics. The border acquires psychological and sociological dimensions, and a universal significance, as evident from its 14 international awards so far.

``Most Israeli directors have to hold on to other jobs,'' she says. ``My dream is to be able to become a full-time filmmaker some day.''

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