Elite Zexer’s directorial debut, “Sand Storm”, takes the world by a storm as the film explores the patriarchal landscape of love, marriage, and family, in a single household situated in a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert, Israel. Although the themes that are in the film are familiar to the audience who are seeing a barrage of critical cinema about the oppressive world around them, Zexer’s take is sharp and sensitive at the same time. The average viewer is disconcerted by how familiar the scenes look, how un-distanced it all seems from the perspective of an onlooker. The story is that of any other family, yours, mine, or of someone we know. The universal nature of the film doesn’t stop it from creating a world of conflict within an isolated family. The film received the Grand Jury award in 2016 as it premiered on the first night of the Sundance Film Festival. Along with this, it also bagged six Ophirs, Israel’s top film award, including best picture, director, and supporting actress.
Watch the trailer of Sand Storm here :
Sand Storm | Summary and Analysis
The movie is centered around how men in Arab culture, as well as any other patriarchal household, steeped in tradition, reap the benefits of a way of life that oppresses women, who then themselves participate in oppressing other women. In short, it’s a rather standard humanist and feminist critique of patriarchy, but one delivered with some really amazing cinematic abilities by a first-time filmmaker.
Often, the world of women is pitted against the backdrop of larger conflicts and national issues, and the nation takes priority over the issues that women face in their daily life. Patriarchy, while being a larger-than-life apparatus, worms its way into the quotidian and ruins it on its way to the bigger and more complex structures of society. This film explores this dynamic of the men who are believed to be the torchbearers of this toxic institution and the women who are directly affected by it, and thus, become an implicit part of its promulgation. The women, in their desperate attempts to shield their daughters from this malicious institution, end up thwarting any chance of progress and freedom within the family. The complex character that Jalila (Ruba Blal) is in this film is brilliantly offset by the lackluster husband, Suliman (Hitham Omari). There is passivity in the way Suliman works, as if guided by the incorporeal hands of patriarchy, while Jalila actively navigates the relationships around her, takes matters into her own hands, and displays a range of complex emotions, such as anger, restraint, distress, joy, happiness, jealousy, and many more, creating a mosaic of a woman, which is as realistic as it can be.
Jalila may be cast as Sand Storm’s main aggressor, at least at first. She’s the ruthless matriarch who follows the patriarchy’s orders. When Suliman warns Layla that her mother is going to kill her for some dust in the first scene, he implies as much. However, the dynamics are more nuanced, and Zexer navigates them deftly. Her investigation of women’s burdens goes beyond Bedouin society’s evident and overt societal constraints. She focuses on the microaggressions that everyone experiences.
As is apparent from the many narratives that pit women against women in this already divided world, in a world dominated by patriarchy whose sole motive is to create a rift between the female members of the society, there is a certain relief that one finds when one sees a strained but warm and protective relationship between a mother and a daughter. As much as Jalila is stern with Layla (Lamis Ammar), her ultimate instinct is to protect her daughter from any sort of harm that might come her way for the simple act of following her heart. Jalila is a mother foremost and it shows through the conflict between her multiple selves.
Zexer builds a world much reminiscent of the real world, sans the larger scene of politics and the conflicts that are plaguing the country. The women are not caricatures, nor do they possess a tablespoon of emotions that are only jealousy and melancholy. The men are not the heroes nor protectors they are made to be. The characters are simply human.
The hollowness that patriarchy leaves within men and the complex nexus of relationships they have to navigate while retaining every single thing the society has told them to emulate is shown through how Suliman and Anwar. Whereas Suliman tries to elevate her daughter’s life, teaching her driving, and allowing her education, which may come across as progressive, but only superficially, since the home is where the other side manifests itself. Within the home, Suliman is a patriarch and is entering a polygamous relationship with a much younger woman, while not letting Layla exercise any control over her life. These actions are offset by Anwar, who is simply in love with Layla, yet finds himself embroiled in a nexus of power and loss. Anwar is not shown to be much vexed, simply confused and free-going with whatever Layla is making him do, showing how the entire onus of navigating the world of omnipresent patriarchy is on women.
The tension within the household mounts as the younger sister watches on from the sidelines and is made to witness this intergenerational conflict. This tension is further enhanced by Layla drifting between laundry with Anwar on her tail, while Layla dodges the attention of her mother. The premise doesn’t go much further than that, but the restricted environment heightens Layla’s dread with each scene. Zexer’s writing is plagued with uncertainties concerning each character’s allegiances, even though it appears to be building toward a huge clash. Suliman, who has finally settled down next door with his new bride, certainly wants the best for his daughter, but he, like her, can’t avoid the pressures and societal expectations that surround them. The landscape of the desert is carefully planned and manages to encapsulate the loneliness and distance these people feel from each other, as they continue to be without any other choices or options. The cinematography perfectly captures the barrenness and heat of the relationships this film shows, through the harsh imagery of a “sand storm”.
One question about the sand storm that one is watching on the screen, is whether one is standing in the desert watching the oncoming sand storm or whether one is standing in the eye of it. The perspective shifts entirely if one considers even these two angles to the story. The critique that this film gets of not including any religious background or not giving a bigger picture of the religious and political situation within the family and surrounding it, or the macro-realities are absent, one is reminded of the same critique that Jane Austen received on her novels, especially Pride and Prejudice. Both films deal with the idea of marriage and love and patriarchy, often working through the maternal generations and enforced and executed by the female members of the family more than the male members. However, this critique falls short when one realizes how the macro-realities somehow seem non-existent from the perspective of the home, how the micro-realities are what directly influence the macro-realities, the status of women, and how they are treated, as well as how they treat each other, these realities stay hidden and to explore these circles of relationships, one might have to recenter the entire argument with the perspective of a woman trapped within the bigger world dynamics.
Zexer roots this film in the real structures and households that are not visible to the external visitors or onlookers. The ones outside the storm can never know exactly what goes on with the people inside the storm. The wonderful gift of “Sand Storm” is that it is human rather than didactic, revealing not only how difficult it is to break free from this iron-clad nexus of culture, tradition, and custom, but also how deeply and intensely it poisons the lives of both the men who impose it and the women who are victims of it. The desert storm takes everyone within and leaves them blinded with sand.
– Shreya Singla