Set in Israel’s Bedouin Community, ‘Sand Storm’ Is Beautiful and Brave

The film deservedly won the best film award at this year’s Israeli Oscars.

Uri Klein
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Ruba Blal Asfour in a scene from the film 'Sand Storm.'
Ruba Blal Asfour in a scene from the film 'Sand Storm.'
Uri Klein

Sand Storm Written and directed by Elite Zexer; with Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal-Asfour, Hitham Omari and Jalal Masrwa

Though it’s not the first film we’ve seen about the plight of women in traditional patriarchal societies, “Sufat Chol” (“Sand Storm”) is a notch above most of them. The debut feature of Israeli filmmaker Elite Zexer was named best film at the recent 2016 Ophir Awards — Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars. (Zexer also claimed the best director prize.)

Even more than directorial talent, the movie displays intelligence and maturity, notably in Zexer’s ability to avoid the pitfalls that could have damaged her film. The result is a work whose emotional and conceptual complexity ratchets up the result without recourse to easy scripting formulas and narrative ploys.

Rife with emotion but devoid of sentimentality, the film is bursting with power but remains judicious and direct throughout — like a clear and lucid thought.

Israel’s cinematic landscape abounds with directorial debuts, but “Sand Storm” is the outstanding work among them. Indeed, it’s one of the finest Israeli movies of recent times.

Set in a Bedouin village in the Negev, the film opens with a scene in which the protagonist, Layla (Lamis Ammar), is driving a truck as her father, Suliman (Hitham Omari), sits next to her. Layla is a university student and has her own cell phone; her hair is covered, as custom dictates, but she’s wearing jeans. She seems to be a young woman whose lifestyle is marked by elements of modernity, whose supportive parents allow her to do as she pleases. But that impression is quickly shattered when, as they approach the village, father and daughter change places: In this social and cultural milieu, a woman must not be seen driving.

The illusion that progress is gradually changing this society is shattered even more powerfully when we learn that Suliman is about to take a second wife. This is after many years of marriage to Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), the mother of his four children (of whom Layla is the eldest). To this end, he has also built a new house, far more elegant than the one his first family lives in. With Layla’s help, Jalila has no choice but to cooperate with her husband’s intention to marry a younger woman. Indeed, she is even required to prepare the new bedroom in which the couple will spend their wedding night.

The wedding itself, to which only women are invited, is depicted as sheer bedlam, but seen from a certain distance and without fixating — here and elsewhere in the film — on the folkloristic elements. Even so, the bride’s heavy makeup and her immense white gown createa powerful image. The bride herself seems to disappear into these elements, leaving only an artificial and somewhat grotesque exterior. (In a lovely scene later in the film, when we meet the new wife and see her pleasant face, we are almost surprised to discover that it’s the same woman and what she really looks like.)

A scene from the film 'Sand Storm.'
A scene from the film 'Sand Storm.'

The illusion of societal change is further shattered when Jalila — who is bitter yet resigned to her husband’s second marriage and his leaving the house — discovers that Layla has a boyfriend, Anwar (Jalal Masrwa), with whom she is in love and wants to marry. But a young woman in this society doesn’t have the right to choose her own husband. Jalila orders her daughter to stop seeing Anwar and tells her husband about the development. He immediately starts looking for a husband for Layla among the village’s eligible bachelors.

Complexity and intelligence

This plot aspect, familiar from movies about the restrictions women face in traditional patriarchies, could have deteriorated into banality, had Zexer excessively played up the love story between Layla and Anwar. But she refrains, as she does from underscoring the melodramatic elements of other key points in the film. There is only one — very beautifully done — scene in the movie that shows a meeting between the two young lovers. It takes place on a staircase in Be’er Sheva, and though it references familiar romantic meetings on stairs or balconies, it too is painted in colors of emotional moderation.

Zexer’s film acquires its complexity, intelligence and maturity from her ability to depict a society that is ideologically anomalous to the point of ambivalence, and to shape characters who are driven by contradictions in a way that allows us to cast our gaze on the plot interactions between the three main figures (Layla and her parents). There is nothing remotely didactic about “Sand Storm.” It shows but does not feel the need to explain the behavior of its characters directly — and that is precisely what makes it so powerful.

The two female protagonists, Layla and Jalila, are imprisoned within the tradition that drives their society, and it is this feeling of being in a prison that — SPOILER ALERT — gradually transforms a melodrama into a tragedy.

Viewers of “Sand Storm” may be reminded of the fine Turkish film “Mustang,” directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven (being screened on Yes 3 on Friday at 22.00), which played in Israel about a year ago. But whereas that movie left some hope for future change, Zexer avoids presenting an encouraging solution. “Sand Storm” is a harsh film, which is what makes the moments of softness that punctuate it so beautiful and moving.

Zexer’s disinterest in lingering over the folkloristic aspects of Bedouin society spares us the voyeuristic element that tends to afflict movies about communities that seem to have an air of the exotic about them. By the same token, she does not romanticize the southern Israel desert landscapes of the Negev: they appear only as background, as a given in the story.

The film’s true landscapes are the faces of its actors Ammar and Blal-Asfour, and in fact all the faces in the movie. The openness that characterizes Layla’s face and the severity that shapes Jalila’s face give expression to the conceptual and emotional complexity that the film projects. They catch our gaze and take us headlong into the film’s beating heart.

Every scene and every line of dialogue attest to the talent of writer-director Zexer, as does her astonishing skill at striking a balance between dramatic scenes and more low-key ones.

“Sand Storm” is a work that faced many risks, met them head-on and overcame them, resulting in a work of art. For example, [SPOILER] look at the film’s last shot, which interrupts a trivial conversation in order to divert Layla’s gaze to her younger sister, who is smiling at her through bars. It’s a beautiful, brave and smart shot that encapsulates a beautiful, brave and smart movie.

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