Editor’s note: Sand Storm is winner of this year’s Ophir Award (for Best Israeli Film), and is Israel’s first Arabic-language nominee for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award.
In Sand Storm, first time director Elite Zexer explores the tensions among what women want, what they think they should be, and what restrictions they face by depicting the lives of Layla and Jalila, two Muslim women living in a Bedouin village in southern Israel.
Eighteen-year-old Layla (Lamis Ammar) first appears in Sand Storm as she is checking her phone while she’s driving. The risk is clear, but also looks casual, as she’s also chatting with her father, Suliman (Hitham Omari), as he gives her a driving lesson. Other sorts of risks appear when they head home, where they are setting up for an event that’s making Layla’s mother and Suilman’s wife Jalila (Ruba Blal) anxious, which turns out to be Suliman’s marriage to a second wife.
The film hints at these gradually rising tensions — between teenager and parents, and between husband and wife — in subdued colors, browns and grays, as well as a lighting scheme that makes even the vividly colored wedding decorations seem muted. Sharing Jalila’s view, we understand her concern when she discovers that Layla has a boyfriend named Anwar (Jalal Masrwa), someone Jalila believes is not a good “match” for her daughter. Layla believes that she can sway her father into accepting Anwar, but when she asks Suilman to let her continue to see Anwar, he refuses, as well.
A man who presumes the privileges of an enduring patriarchy, his decisions shape the lives of both his wife and his daughters. When Layla resists, telling him, “You always have a choice,” he insists that he abides by traditions. “Grow up,” he snarls. The film goes on to show how she does, though not in the way her father might anticipate. Instead, Layla comes to realize that she, her mother, her sisters, and even his new wife, all matter less to Suilman than his reputation according to his fellow male villagers.
Zexer’s film goes on to examine Layla’s difficult relationships with her father and mother, in order to uncover the changing dynamics between past and present, as well as men and women. Jalila provides an especially sympathetic, and complicated, lens for viewing these changes. In effect, Blal plays two women in one role, a vigilant mother and an oppressed wife. Jalila’s expression of resignation as she speaks with her husband is agonizing; even as she shifts from a fierce protector of her children to a submissive wife, we’re aware of her internal struggle, as well as her evolving resistance to Suilman. From moment to moment, role to role, Jalila remains dignified and increasingly admirable.
It takes some time for Layla to see what we see. As Layla’s eyes open to her own restricted situation, her understanding of her mother’s position expands, and she begins to see her as an ally rather than a restrictive parent. When Suilman censures Jilala for sticking up for her daughter, the camera follows Layla’s gaze as she watches her mother leave their home. The rest of the family hangs back, but we see in this camera movement that mother and daughter feel united in that moment. Their connection seems almost empowering, until the reality of their limitations sets in once again.
No matter what Jalila or Layla try to do, they can’t escape their circumstances, not without letting each other down. Each faces her own sort of darkness and isolation. In one of the film’s final scenes, Layla drives through a tunnel. She stops the car, and in a close-up, we see her tears, even as she can looks ahead to a light that seems impossible to reach. When, in another moment, Jalila embraces her husband on their porch in the night, the camera shifts so that Suilman is almost completely out of frame. Jalila’s wedding ring is visible on the hand holding his shoulder, but she appears to be alone in the dark. Both mother and daughter are increasingly alienated. Slowly, we come to see what they see, that their lives aren’t theirs, not completely. They never were.
A compelling and thoughtful critique of Israeli-Bedouin expectations of women and an intricate character study, Sand Storm makes clear the difficult intimacies of a contentious international debate.