Eran Riklis' latest film, "The Syrian Bride", deals with a young Druze woman from the Golan Heights who marries a man from Syria. After the wedding, she is not allowed to visit her family in Israel anymore. Interview by Igal Avidan
Your first film, "On a Clear Day You Can See Damascus" (1984), deals with an Israeli spying for Syria, and is based on a true story. Does this new film mark your return to the Israeli-Syrian conflict zone?
Eran Riklis: I've probably always been drawn to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Besides, I've already observed that the history of this conflict is best reflected through this kind of small, naïve film about people with a mixed political identity who are experiencing personal problems. The film you just referred to, which, by the way, today I find very boring, focused on the juxtaposition of national identity and treason. Another signpost on my way was the film "Cup Final" (1990) about an Israeli soccer fan held hostage by the PLO in Lebanon and who shares his love for the Italian national team with his captors.
What role did your documentary film "Borders" (1999) play in this respect? You filmed it in four of Israel's border regions, and it also featured the story of a Druze bride living in the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since 1967.
Riklis: These were various short border stories about Jews and Arabs, smugglers and border soldiers. One of the episodes dealt with a wedding, which couldn't take place due to a bureaucratic mix-up. I was on the Israeli-Syrian border for a total of five hours, yet this one story and these people remain in my head.
Two years later, I took up contact with some Druze acquaintances living on the Golan Heights. I began to visit them every two months so I could listen to their stories. The idea for "The Syrian Bride" originated with this documentary film. However, the new production is primarily the result of my many visits with the Druze and the attempt to analyse the psychology of these people, who have to face their Syrian identity and life under Israeli occupation.
You began work on this film during the second Intifada and the wave of terrorist attacks – a time in which Israelis basically avoided movie theaters and foreign productions abandoned the country. At the same time, you knew that you would need foreign co-producers. Did you really have so much faith in this film?
Riklis: When I first wrote for the script the lines "Mona's wedding day was the saddest day of her life. She knew that once she crosses the border, she will never be able to visit her family in Israel," I knew at once that I would shoot a film about Mona's wedding within two years.
When it becomes clear in a filmmaker's head that he wants to make a certain film, he will do everything to bring this complex process to completion. Two months later, I had already met with the German producer Bettina Brokemper, six months later, I was in negotiations with French producers, and a year and a half later, I had already begun filming.
You call your film "The Syrian Bride." How Syrian do the Druze on the Golan Heights, an Islamic, though not an Arab community, view themselves?
Riklis: The older generation remains absolutely loyal to Hafiz al-Asad, his son Bashar, and the Ba'th Party. Their loyalty also has a practical aspect, as they don't want to be labeled collaborators with Israel if the Golan Heights are someday returned to Syria. Compared to the Palestinian territories, Israeli rule on the Golan Heights has been relatively calm, with the exception of the violent clashes in 1981 after the annexation of the region. Almost all Druze I know live peacefully with Israelis, not least because they are dependant on Israel.
On the other hand, I was surprised at the extent to which they feel occupied. Even when Druze tell me that that they appreciate my film and are grateful that I am highlighting their situation, they see me as a representative of the occupation, only because I am an Israeli.
In order to delve into the mentality of Druze women, you engaged the help of Suha Arraf, a Palestinian-Israeli, as co-writer. In addition, you almost exclusively employed Palestinian-Israeli actors. You don't speak any Arabic yourself. In what language did you hold the rehearsals?
Riklis: The screenplay was written in Hebrew and the rehearsals were held in Hebrew as well, until we reached the point where we had to work on the text. Then it was translated into Arabic. I have a good ear for languages in general, so I could "hear" the Arabic, without being able to understand it. The funny thing is, this never caused a single problem. Because I knew the text so well and the characters were ideal in their roles, I found that the production went as smooth as possible.
Only a single Druze plays in the film, and in a secondary role. Why?
Riklis: I began by looking for a Druze co-author, but couldn't find a suitable person, as the Druze have no tradition of cinema or theater. Adnan Trabshi, who plays Amin, the conservative and macho husband of Mona's sister Amal, is an Israeli Druze. But he doesn't live on the Golan Heights. The domestic culture of a classical Arab village in Galilee hardly differs, however, from that of a Druze village on the Golan. And this was Suha Aref's contribution to the screenplay.
What is your position on a possible return of the Golan in exchange for a peace agreement with Syria?
Riklis: The Golan is truly beautiful and even the Jewish inhabitants are very attached to it. Yet, it doesn't have the emotional significance for the Jews as, for example, the city of Hebron. What ties us to the Golan, in end effect, are security issues, and these can be solved. I regard the Golan Druze as Syrians, because that is how they define themselves. I got on with them quite well, so I have the feeling that Israelis will also find it very easy to get along with the Syrians. This is why I believe there will be a peace settlement with Syria in the relatively near future.
Do you believe, keeping with the style of your first film, that you will one day be able to see Damascus?
Riklis: I believe that I could travel to Damascus to finally show the film there. That would be really nice. Especially since I have the feeling that the Syrians would like "The Syrian Bride."
Interview: Igal Avidan
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: John Bergeron