'Sand Storm': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Absorbing, if not entirely satisfying.

Israeli writer-director Elite Zexer's feature debut is about two Bedouin women thwarted by sexist cultural traditions.

Modern female empowerment arm wrestles centuries-old Middle Eastern male dominance in Sand Storm, a dramatically absorbing if (perhaps inevitably) frustrating account of a mother and daughter stymied by cultural norms stacked entirely in favor of the man of the house. It's impossible not to sympathize with the dilemma of a bright young woman who'd like a piece of the modern world being held back by centuries-old customs that most societies have cast off. But international literature and cinema have offered so many similar stories in recent decades of women trying to assert themselves, with varying but mostly progressive degrees of success, that watching such a rudimentary tale in which there are essentially no options available makes for a trying experience in and of itself. A sort of sister film, thematically if not stylistically or aesthetically, to the current Mustang, Israeli writer-director Elite Zexer's feature debut will certainly attract notice on the festival circuit and will likely tempt some small distributor interest in some markets.

From an outsider's perspective, this small, quickly paced drama hobbles itself from the outset by failing to provide even the most basic information of where the story is set, who the principal people are and even what language they are speaking. It would help Western viewers considerably if some sort of title card or scroll were added to clue them in on the following, for which the film itself provides no internal evidence: The setting is the vast Negev Desert area in southern Israel, the characters are Bedouins, they speak Arabic (or some dialect of it) and polygamy is widespread, an issue linked to extremely retrograde attitudes toward women, their education and status in society.

Without knowing any of this, it's especially jarring in a modern context to witness the events of the initial few minutes: Middle-aged Suliman (Haitham Omari) shows up on the eve of his wedding to his second wife-to-be, whose face has been clownishly powdered white and who bulges like a pig prepared for a feast (the marriage bed breaks when she so much as sits on it to try it out); his daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) is humiliatingly enlisted to help fix up the fancy new home next door he's built for his new bride in what otherwise resembles a forlorn shantytown, and first wife Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) must suffer the humiliation of being escorted away by the local religious boss to make way for her replacement.

A stern old crow, Jalila accidentally learns that the attractive Layla, who shrouds her head like all other women in view but also sports striking blue eye shadow, is seeing a young man in a nearby town. Taking out her own unhappiness on her eldest daughter, Jalila forbids Layla from seeing him again, which abruptly puts the young woman in the position of having to decide whether to remain an obedient daughter or to become a rebel within the highly restrictive community within the context of a far more open, Western-oriented nation, the name of which goes unmentioned.

A thoroughly unimpressive man who by nature always looks for the easiest way out, Suliman guiltily obliges his older wife by quickly finding the first “worthy man” locally available for his eldest daughter; a chubby older gent, he would seem a better physical match with Suliman's new wife than the groom himself. Things conclude on a rather jaw-dropping note.

The intrinsic drama of the situation, along with the extremity of the the strict, suffocating attitudes ruling everyone's behavior, prove involving and appalling in equal measure; to Western eyes, it's an extreme story, but likely similar to things that happen everyday in certain areas. Zexer's tale obviously represents a feminist (by local standards) critique of long-entrenched attitudes that now butt heads with more modern societal norms; as with so much else these days, any middle ground seems to have given way to moral quicksand. And even though the sort of behavior depicted here seems inimical to what one would imagine are Israeli norms and even laws, it would appear that authorities choose to look the other way when it comes to the Bedouins (whose birthrate is far higher than the national norm, perhaps understandable when men can have multiple wives).

The lead performances have power, whereas pictorially the film is pretty rough and ordinary. Sand Storm was the beneficiary of the Locarno Film Festival's First Look top prize last year, which netted the work-in-progress $66,000 in finishing funds.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

Production: 2-Team Productions

Cast: Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal-Asfour, Haitham Omari, Khadija Alakel, Jalal Masarwa

Director: Elite Zexer

Screenwriter: Elite Zexer

Producers: Haim Mecklberg, Estee Yacov-Mecklberg

Executive producers: Rami Yeshoshua, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Yigal Mograbi

Director of photography: Shai Peleg

Production designer: Nir Adler

Costume designer: Chen Gilad

Editor: Ronit Porat

Music: Ran Bagno

Casting: Limor Shmila

87 minutes