By Daniele Foti-Cuzzola
Israeli director Elite Zexer’s debut directorial feature, Sand Storm, is a heartbreaking story of how one man’s obsession with tradition ultimately tears his family apart. The film explores where families in Southern Israel blur the lines between modernity and tradition, and where the importance of custom and tradition generally outweighs happiness and wellbeing within one’s family.
Sand Storm centers on a loyal Bedouin wife, Jalila (Ruba Blal), who is preparing for her husband, Suliman’s marriage to his second wife. Meanwhile, Jalila is horrified to discover that her teenaged daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) is secretly dating a boy from another tribe. Determined to hide Layla’s secret, Jalila forbids the relationship. However, Jalila and Layla grow to understand each other and attempt to change the unchangeable rules as they come to the realisation that the man they love will deprive them of a happy future – all for the sake of tradition.
Sand Storm is a moving film amplified by the cast’s incredible performances. Ruba Blal delivers a tour-de-force performance as an estranged wife, who deeply loves her husband but is humiliated by his decision to take on a second wife. She channels a mixture of emotions in her scenes, particularly in her opening scene where she inspects the lavish house her husband has built for his second wife. Her gestures and movements reinforce her resentment and disdain, yet her misty eyes reveal a longing to still be her husband’s priority. The scene is one of many heartbreaking moments, and her character’s lack of freedom is a horrific reminder that this is the reality for many women in today’s world.
What is so beautiful yet heartbreaking about Sand Storm is the way Zexer has created her characters. Suliman (Hitham Omari), is constructed as a loving father who cares for his wife and daughters. He sheepishly avoids eye contact with Jalila after his second wedding and in the opening scene, he is depicted as a progressive and doting Israeli father. He teaches his daughter how to drive, he values her education and allows her to have a mobile phone. However, his attitude changes when he finds out about Layla’s relationship, indicating there is a fine line between what will and won’t stand within the patriarchal society in which they live. Suliman is never vilified. It is clear he is torn about his decisions, but considering he continues to enforce these rules, even when he is aware of the consequences, is what makes it more disturbing.
The only performance that falls short is Ammar’s as Layla, and the narrative suffers with how underdeveloped the relationship with her boyfriend is. This reaffirms Zexer’s view that regardless of how enamoured the two are, Layla’s father is denying her the right to choose her own life partner.
Regardless of its shortcomings, Sand Storm is an impressive directorial debut, beautifully shot and well written. Much like an actual sand storm, the film (thanks mostly to the performances), will sweep viewers into an emotional whirlwind that will leave many reeling long after the dust has settled.
Sand Storm is screening in Perth as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.
The Jewish International Film Festival Is screening in Perth from October 26 – November 6. For more information visit: http://www.jiff.com.au/