Sundance Film Festival international feature Sand Storm is set in an Israeli Bedouin community.
Media depictions of underrepresented communities don’t get much scarcer than films about native peoples, wherever they reside. The Israeli drama Sand Storm, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and focuses on the domestic crisis of a contemporary Bedouin family living in the Negev Desert, helps fill this gap, making for a worthwhile addition to contemporary international cinema.
The film opens as Muslim college student Layla (Lamis Ammar) returns from a school break to visit family in her home village. Her indulgent father Suliman (Haitham Omari) allows Layla to drive his pickup truck after he collects her in the city, although tradition frowns up such an unsuitable activity for women. Layla’s attitude is progressive by local standards and perhaps even inappropriate from a strictly traditional perspective, a situation that often exposes her unconventional behavior to pointed criticism.
The occasion of Layla’s visit is her father’s marriage to a second wife substantially younger than Layla’s stern middle-aged mother Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour). Layla is tasked with helping Jalila set up the newlyweds’ new household adjacent to their family home, a source of evident shame for Jalila. Misplacing her mobile phone, Layla discovers that her mother has located it and answered a call from a young man phoning Layla. Irate that her daughter is socializing with single men unrelated to her family, Jalila insists that her daughter break off the relationship. Although Layla tries to placate her mother, she knows that her boyfriend will be upset if she attempts to put things on hold.
Instead, they decide to try and persuade her father to let them marry, but when Jalila gets wind of their plans she forces Layla to skip classes and remain shut-in at home in order to cut off contact with her boyfriend. Suliman’s response is even more extreme, however, pushing even Jalila to reject a plan that puts Layla’s future at risk and sparks a domestic crisis that completely disrupts the household and reverberates throughout the close-knit community.
Israeli writer-director Elite Zexer has a strong eye for human drama, but neglects to provide critical details on the film’s setting in an exclusively Bedouin village or the settlement’s relationship to wider Israeli society. By maintaining tight focus on a single extended family, she sketches the broad strokes of female oppression within a traditional society where women’s needs are always secondary to men’s. Layla’s dilemma illustrates the clash between ancient customs and encroaching modernity, which forces families to make difficult choices for the future of both their children and their culture. Zexer recognizes that resolving these conflicts will require educated, independent women like Layla participating in a transition to contemporary social values, if only they’re allowed to speak their minds and make a contribution.
Although Zexer conveys these female-centric themes fairly clearly, the film’s visual style remains rather rough, sometimes even working against clear articulation of the storyline. An over-reliance on shaky handheld camera techniques, use of makeshift locations and uneven editing point to a lack of experience or resources, or perhaps both. With a cast mainly consisting of nonprofessionals, Blal-Asfour stands out as the conflicted matriarchal enforcer of traditional values, while Ammar is adequate in Layla’s role, although she too often plays her scenes like a petulant teenager when a greater maturity of demeanor would be more convincing.
Written and directed by Elite Zexer.
Watch the trailer on Deadline.com.