Arabic Film on Bedouin Women Takes Israel's Top Prize, en Route to Oscars

Sand Storm is the first all-Arabic language film to be Israel’s submission for the Oscars foreign film category.

“Sand Storm” - winner of six Israeli Ophir Awards.
Vered Adir

For the first time, Israel has selected a film entirely in Arabic to represent the country at the Academy Awards.

“Sand Storm” won six Ophir Awards — Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars given out by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television — on Thursday, including for best film. The winner of the best film award is entered as Israel’s submission for the foreign film award at the next year’s Oscars.

A family drama set in the Bedouin community — a largely poor and often marginalized subset of the Israeli population — “Sand Storm” is the feature debut for Elite Zexer, a Jewish Israeli. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic section.

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Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture and sport, caused a stir at the Ophir Awards show in Ashdod, walking out in protest while Arab-Israeli rapper Tamer Nafar performed a poem by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Regev returned to present the best film award and was loudly booed.

Jewish performer Yossi Zabari and Tamer Nafar, the Arab star of the Israeli film "Junction 48," raise their fist in a sign of protest during Ophir Awards. September 22, 2016.
Ilan Assayag
Culture Minister Miri Regev at the Ophir Awards ceremony in Ashdod, September 22, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

“I have a lot of tolerance for the ‘other,’ but I have no tolerance for Darwish and anyone who wants to eliminate Israel,” Regev said.

When Regev ultimately presented the award for best film to "Sand Storm," about Arab Bedouin women in the south, two Arab actresses form the film, Ruba Blal-Asfour and Lamis Ammar, refused to take the stage. From the audience, Blal-Asfour yelled that she would not stand on stage alongside Regev.

“Sand Storm” will be released in the United States on Wednesday, starting at New York City’s Film Forum.

Israeli films have been nominated for the best foreign film Oscar 10 times but have never won the award.