Sand Storm (2016)

In a Bedouin village in Southern Israel, Suliman (Hitham Omari) is getting married to his second wife. His first wife Jalila (Ruba Blal), however, attempts to hide her true feelings of rejection by throwing herself into her role as a ‘good woman’ — looking after the household and her four daughters, including university student Layla (Lamis Ammar), who harbors a secret love affair with a fellow student, Anwar (Jalal Masrwa). But when Jalila unwittingly picks up Layla’s phone and begins to unravel what’s really been going on, a rift grows within the family and the patriarchal traditions of their village, leading both mother and daughter to question what they truly value.

One of the most magical things about cinema is its ability to transport viewers elsewhere for a short period of time. At its most successful, audiences should feel wholly invested, as though they’ve lived and breathed a different life and culture for a couple of hours before coming back to their own reality. It would seem that writer-director Elite Zexer intrinsically shares this feeling with her surprising feature debut Sand Storm, evoking powerful storytelling within a simple ‘slice of life’ narrative.

'Keep those lips sealed ... '
‘Keep those lips sealed … ‘

At a taut 87 minutes, Zexer renders the real-life qualities of what it’s like to live within a niche culture, avoiding the type of subjectivity that may lose an outsider’s curiosity or questioning. Here, we witness the entrapment of two strong-minded women and uncertain men.

To her credit, filmmaker Zexer doesn’t take the easy way out with any of her character arcs. See, it’s not a case of the ‘spiritual’ or ‘fear of change’ that shackles her subjects to their potentially destructive traditions, but the weight of their personal choices — for instance, if one wishes to be true to their most inner desires they must pay for it with sombre isolation. This subtext comes through loud and clear, while never playing out as overbearing or forceful in execution, never presenting the path to the alternative as any easier.

Enhancing the intimate atmosphere are strong, nuanced performances from all the cast, with Ruba Blal, When I Saw You (2012), and newcomer Lamis Ammar sharing the bulk of the movie’s emotional heft as mother and daughter respectively. On screen their sense of history and conflict feels authentic and apparent — both Blal and Ammar appear to grow together over the course of the story, their bond challenged and deepened as many familial relationships are. Acting as a kind of quiet observer for the audience, young Khadija Al Akel imbues the second eldest daughter Tasnim with a precocious cheekiness that evolves into a haunting reflection of Layla by the movie’s end — her fate likely to veer in the same direction as her sister’s.

'Did you just block me?'
‘Did you just block me?’

Patient editing by Ronit Porat, She Is Coming Home (2013), allows enough contemplation for the film’s themes without succumbing to stilted indulgence, while the cinematography by Shai Peleg, Blush (2015), knows when to pull back and take in the isolated, desert environment — in the right light with the right framing, this barren region can appear as both beautiful and suffocating.

While on the surface Sand Storm is a simple story of a family unraveling (which the title comes to imply), there’s rich storytelling on display here with Elite Zexer connecting viewers to the film in a thoughtful and meaningful way. It’s this care and introspection that makes this little pic one of the highlights of the Jewish International Film Festival, and 2016 cinema as a whole. Absolutely worth seeking out.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

Sand Storm is released through JIFF Distribution