Can Europe Make It?

Of weddings and borders

The Italian film On the Bride Side and Greek-Macedonian project Renkonto deploy weddings as an artistic medium to rewrite the boundaries of European citizenship. Both pieces chart cross-border practices...

Chiara Bonfiglioli
12 January 2015
‘Io sto con la sposa’. Antonio Augugliaro/Gabriele Del Grande/Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry. All rights reserved.

‘Io sto con la sposa’. Antonio Augugliaro/Gabriele Del Grande/Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry. All rights reserved.There is something to weddings that is iconic, fated, almost sacred. Despite the crisis of the institution of marriage, actual wedding parties wandering in the streets usually generate sympathy and curiosity, as if people would still like to believe in the magic of true love. Because of the traditional positive value given to marriage, two recent projects, the Italian documentary On the Bride Side (Io sto con la sposa), and the Greek-Macedonian art project Renkonto, have been using weddings as an artistic medium to challenge the borders of European and national citizenship.

The connection between weddings, art, and citizenship is not new. In 2000, Serbian artist Tanja Ostojić denounced the exclusiveness of EU migration laws with her art project, Looking for a Husband with a EU passport. Similarly, in these two projects the signifier of marriage has been mobilized to reveal the limits of our contemporary conceptions of citizenship. The special aura that surrounds bridal veils has been used both personally and strategically. On the Bride Side used a simulated wedding as a cross-border passing that challenged the borders of Fortress Europe, while Renkonto turned a real wedding into a cosmopolitan happening, in order to deconstruct nationalist myths and stereotypes.

The film On the Bride Side documents a group of Syrian refugees travelling from Italy to Sweden, in order to obtain political asylum there. They disguise themselves as a wedding party, crossing the borders between Italy, France, Germany and Sweden. In the case of Renkonto (the Esperanto word for ‘encounter’), a Greek artist and her Macedonian partner decided to turn their own real wedding into a public event held in the small Macedonian town of Kruševo. A Greek-Macedonian wedding is a subversive gesture in itself, because of the political and territorial conflict between the two neighbouring countries. The name ‘Macedonia’ is at the core of an international dispute with Greece, which has resulted in the compromise official name of FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

Both projects underline the constraints put by national and European borders on individual and collective lives. They challenge the narratives of national and ethnic homogeneity we are accustomed to, and point instead at the complexity of migratory paths, individual destinies and personal choices. 

On the Bride Side began life in November 2013, when journalist Gabriele del Grande and poet and editor Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry met at Porta Garibaldi station in Milan for a coffee. Someone heard them speaking Arabic, and asked them where he could take a train to Sweden. The query came from Abdallah Sallam, a Palestinian student who survived a shipwreck off Lampedusa, with 250 people drowning in the sea. Four more Palestinians and Syrians, a middle-aged couple of dissidents and a father with his 11-year-old son, were also in Milan and determined to get to Sweden. The idea of a trip to Scandinavia disguised as a wedding party started to come about, together with the idea of turning the project into a documentary, with the help of director Antonio Augugliaro. This was done at the risk of being charged as ‘traffickers’, according to Italian migration laws. Abdallah became the groom and a Palestinian-Syrian activist with a German passport, Tasnim Fared, joined the crew in order to play the bride. More friends supported the project, and the trip was pushed forward thanks to the solidarity of a wide activist network spread across Europe. A crowdfunding campaign involving more than 2000 people provided the necessary funds for the production.

The documentary captures the risks, fear and exhilaration faced during those four days. The refugees’ personal memories of hardship and survival, notably of the journey by sea and of the war in Syria, are also collected in the film, while the wish for a better life is embodied in the powerful rap lyrics of 11-year-old Manar, which became the soundtrack of the trip. The documentary manages to convey the exceptionally intense connections created between those who embarked on the journey. Eventually, everyone received refugee status either in Sweden or Italy, such that the project truly became a political act both through its material effects and through its message.

A real wedding, not a fake one, is at the core of Renkonto. Artist Fotini Gouseti aimed to blur the boundaries between life and art, as well as the imagined and material borders between Greece and Macedonia, by turning the wedding with her Macedonian partner into an art project. Fotini Gouseti had been deeply engaged in a project dealing with the memory of World War II in the Greek town of Kalavryta, where all male inhabitants above the age of 14 had been executed in a Nazi massacre in 1943, when she met her current partner, Oliver, who had come to work in Greece from Macedonia. They later moved to the Netherlands, but decided to come back to Macedonia for their wedding. Renkonto was thought of as a collective encounter between artists and non-artists, Greeks and Macedonians, friends and family. It was composed of an artists’ meeting, a wedding, and a party.

Artists from Greece and Macedonia were invited to meet in a friendly setting and to overcome prejudices by discussing possible forms of cooperation. The political tensions between the two countries, in fact, have meant that contact between Greek and Macedonian artists are now almost absent. Other artists joined the project by creating ad hoc installations for the wedding. Fotini’s and Oliver’s families also met for the first time, crossing material and symbolic borders.  After the wedding celebration in the main church, the Japanese band Pyramidos, which plays Balkan music, animated the final party in Kruševo’s central square. The power of gossip and the curiosity of the local population attracted hundreds of visitors, making the Renkonto wedding party the most talked about in town. After the wedding, Fotini and Oliver went back to the multicultural harbour of Rotterdam, home to migrant artists and non-artists from all over the world.

On the Bride Side exposes the cracking gates of Fortress Europe, and the cruelty of its migration policy. According to writer and film director Gabriele del Grande, more than 20,000 people have died since 1988 trying to cross the Mediterranean or trying to enter Europe by land. The documentary is an act of civil disobedience against Italian and European border patrol operations, in support of anti-racism, solidarity, migrants’ freedom of movement and human rights. Renkonto challenges Greek and Macedonian nationalist narratives, and the division between Greek and Macedonian citizens that nationalism sustains. With their wedding, Fotini and Oliver create a space for transnational encounters between Balkan neighbors and point at the actual possibility of cultural and social exchanges, artistic cooperation, and love. Both projects chart cross-border practices that are already happening, but that so far have not been given enough space in the European cultural landscape, precisely because they are undoing dominant political hierarchies founded on nationality, ethnicity, class and gender. On the Bride Side and Renkonto rewrite the borders of European citizenship through art, in a utopian fashion that calls to mind the well-known 1968 slogan: “Be realistic, demand the impossible”. 

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