Set in southern Israel, Sand Storm is a sensitive and moving portrayal of the still complicated social structure for women in Israel. The film, written and directed by Elite Zexter, is a powerful depiction of the clash of contemporary and traditional forces in the lives of women in Israel. It is a strong debut, one that feels more heartfelt and sensitive than harshly critical, a tricky and complicated act to pull off, yet Zexter manages a fine balance in Sand Storm with robust performances by her female leads.
The film opens on young Layla (Lamis Ammar), an 18-year-old driving her father Suliman (Haitham Omari) to a wedding where he is to marry his second wife. He is in the passenger’s seat of a truck, traveling through the desert with Layla driving. He stern backseat driver, he chastises her when she starts texting at the wheel. At the wedding, we get an insider’s view of the traditions involved in this life-changing ritual, and it does not feel like a joyous occasion for women. Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), Layla’s mother and Suliman’s wife, understands all too well how this tradition will change the life for the bride-to-be. She looks at her with mixed emotions and congratulates her with a sorrowful, sour face that is also loaded with understanding. It is a stirring performance that carries well the complex emotions she is feeling.
The weddings show the celebrations in full force. There is dancing, clapping, lots of food and live music. Yet, underneath the short-lived party there is a lifetime of difficulty, as the wedding also stands as a symbol of a lack of freedom where women go from the control of their family to the control of another. What Zexter does so well is to show the complexity of being a woman in today’s Israel through sequences of daily life. The camera follows the women in the film as they sweep, do laundry and other kinds of chores. The way the women carry on these daily tasks also says a lot about their position, revealed as unfair circumstances from the young to the old.
At the center of the story is a young, defiant relationship between Layla and her boyfriend, unraveling the already fragile family equilibrium. Because they aren’t married, this is a forbidden relationship but one that is clearly loving, trapped between tradition and modernity. It is this relationship that exposes the intricacies of the parallel worlds for women, shown through Layla’s experiences. Zexter gets great performances from all these women, who say so much without speaking, but then again, if you can’t speak up your eyes and actions have to do all the talking.
By the second act of the film, we have learned what’s at stake for young Layla, but she doesn’t give up. In a confrontation with her father, she tells him, “There’s always a choice.” To which he replies, “Grow up already.” It’s a powerful moment that exposes the structure of the relationship going beyond a pure father-and-daughter dynamic. There is a heaviness stemming from the social structure in which they are embedded. Young actress Amar gives a fearless performance, making for a compelling film. The storms in the sand represent the will and power of these women, relentless and strong, a beautiful ode by Zexter to the fortitude of women in that region.
Sand Storm runs 87 minutes, is in Arabic with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens in South Florida on Friday, Oct. 21, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For nationwide screenings please click here. A screener link and official images were provided by Kino Lorber for the purposes of this review.