A bleak landscape where human structures blot out the otherwise evocative topography of Southern Israel. A group of women wearing fake moustaches welcoming a new bride in a whimsical gown, her face smeared with white powder. A teenager in a bare concrete dwelling with an iPhone. These images abound in Sand Storm, an intricately-woven Bedouin melodrama and first feature from debut-writer/director Elite Zexer, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year. Sand Storm consciously bills itself as a women’s film, centred on the tangled strain of tradition and modern expectation within the microcosm of an Israeli desert neighbourhood.
Melodramas that poise a central focus on sex–or one’s desire for it–against a background of historical conservatism are often somewhat predictable. Sand Storm however, breaks from these conventions. The characters (almost all from the same family) openly loathe their closeted society’s expectations of them. The restrained pauses throughout the dialogue between characters impart the sense that one must constantly be looking over one’s shoulder, making the film comparable to any other suburban narrative on American values. The script is a veritable feast of paradoxes and psychologies that ripen and fester in matchless pace with the anxieties of the film’s leads.
Following the lives of two people, Layla (Lamis Anmar) and her mother Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) wife of patriarch Suliman (Haithman Omari), Sand Storm begins with the arranged wedding of Suliman to a much younger second woman, Afaf (Shaden Kanboura). Suliman’s relationships to the women in his family are immediately put into turmoil after the conclusion of his second marriage, exemplified in the fragility of his marriage bed, which Jalila was forced to built for Afaf. Layla, the oldest in a large family of girls and her father’s favourite, recognises her mother’s distress over the second union and is moved to action. When Jalila’s thawb catches and rips on the marriage bed’s frame, Layla exchanges it for her own, giving it to her mother in silent acknowledgment and sympathy.
Costume design then continues to play a rather romantically heavy-handed but relatable role throughout the rest of the film, and is swathed around the tiny derelict houses in layers of wet washing or used as a symbolic exchange between family members in an acknowledgement of adulthood. These moments provide a sensitive look at relationships between women, and how those in the film are trapped by an unyieldingly destructive conservative heritage and a futurity threatening to leave them behind. Jalila’s discovery of Layla’s iPhone, a luxury afforded to her by her father, hidden in the pocket of the loaned dress, is the first flinch of tension that then builds throughout the film. On the other end of the line is the voice of Layla’s secretive university boyfriend. Jalila then struggles not only to come to terms with her daughter’s perceived betrayal but also with what she knows (it is alluded to, possibly from first hand experience) will be austere reactions from the patriarchal community, where spousal hearings and banishments are commonplace.
Though the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is an occasional distraction for the film, Zexer’s decisions concerning her Jewish-Arab crew and cast boost its credibility, bridging an awkward divide between the two traditions. This is a fitting setting for Zexer to deal with this friction in a straightforward and ethical manner. Sand Storm doesn’t end up bogged down in politics, but instead has Layla’s love interest discuss it with her father; permitting a brief ripple of solidarity between the men, soon extinguished by Suliman’s refusal to acknowledge the young couple’s love. Through moments like this, the director exposes how the Bedouin culture, at its root is both a source of comfort and worriment for those under its rule. There is a sense of dogged solidarity, although it is only ever fleeting for Arabs living in an Israeli state, reinforced by the film’s evocative setting of a suspiciously temporary-looking settlement.
Blal-Asfour excels as Jalila, somehow managing to be both a weary and incredibly spritely woman at the same time, struggling for authority over a husband bound to a culture of masculine domination and a rapidly maturing daughter who believes she has been offered more liberation that is actually allowed. It’s a mystifying performance, with Blal-Asfour’s engaging acting a testament to the precise casting for the film. The screenplay, though a little lean at times, finds flourishes in the occasional poetic lib; reminiscent of the poetry of Yona Wallach in its unflinching brutality both in Suliman and Jalila’s censorship of their daughter. Jalila’s own humanity and sexuality, things she struggles to conceal from her ever shrewd daughter and grossly ambivalent husband are transmitted through . In a simple bread making scene between mother and daughter, and a fervent exchange of rapid-fire Arabic between Jalila and Layla’s boyfriend, there are moments of pure beauty throughout the film; although many of them are too small to commit to memory
Layla’s innocent belief that an explanation to her parents will excuse her behaviour is so heartbreakingly paradoxical to her situation that one almost feels ill for her. What Zexer does so gently and honestly with Sand Storm however, is in presenting this sort of coming of age without any overt childish perspectives, a refreshing and much needed antidote to the usual film festival adolescent narrative selection like Almost Adults or Barash, for example. There may be naivety, but it is not romanticised.
Throughout the second act of Sand Storm the scope widens magnificently to include, in intimate detail, all the women of Suliman’s family who struggle for solidarity under the decisions he implores he “has to” make. Cinematographer Shai Peleg’s lens scoots even farther back in the third act of the film, focusing first on a backyard argument before widening to include the entire village. The scene becomes trained on Suliman’s struggle to keep a lid on the explosive unhappiness within his households, scrambling to contain the very public suffering he initiates from the women who vastly outnumber him. This offers the most captivating tension in Sand Storm, as every single member of the family sees the ability for progression and acceptance with Layla’s situation, yet feels unable to do so. There is no villain for Zexer, only complex observations and a recognition of the limitations of social standing. For all the animosity and unsaid accusations between Jalila and Suliman, there is a history to their marriage that is expressed simply and honestly in her bold statements, his timidity around her, and in their infrequent caresses and smouldering shared looks.
Sand Storm is valuable both for Blal-Asfour’s authoritative performance as Jalila, and the exploration of the complexities of a culture far removed from that of a Sydneysider. Though the conclusion of the film may be unsatisfactory for some, one senses that although these women are caught in the webs of a stubborn culture, there is hope that these are temporary, like the wooden pallet and corrugated iron fences traced through the Bedouin desert, hemming in a simmering and quintessentially feminine defiance.