Wedded to Tradition: Elite Zexer explores Bedouin family bonds in ‘Sand Storm’

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In a Bedouin village in the south of Israel, Jalila’s husband is marrying a second, much younger wife, and Jalila feels obligated to host the wedding. During the festivities, she discovers that her daughter has formed an illicit relationship with a boy from another village; humiliated on two fronts, Jalila forbids her daughter from seeing her boyfriend again. In her brilliant study of two women facing off in a culture that respects neither, director Elite Zexer delicately explores the bonds of family, self-identity and tradition while remaining faithful to Bedouin reality. Winner of six Ophir Awards, the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and first prize in the Locarno International Film Festival Work-In-Progress Competition, Sand Storm is Israel’s official entry to the 2017 Academy Awards. Judy Gelman Myers of Director Talk recently spoke with Elite Zexer.

Director Talk: When you wrote the script, you made yourself stick to two principles: be as authentic to the Bedouin experience as possible, and be as universal as possible. How did you meet the challenge of remaining both local and universal, and how did you reproduce an authentic Bedouin experience?

Elite ZexerOn the authentic side, it took me ten years to make the movie. I first experienced the moment that made me think “I have to do this” ten years ago. It took me about four more years spending time with [Bedouin] friends, meeting about fifty more girls and women with strong stories and realizing what film I wanted to make. After I acquired all the information and stories and everything that I knew I wanted to put in this film, I decided to test myself to see if it’s really OK for me to make a film about a culture that’s so far away from mine.

To see that it was OK for me and OK for the Bedouins, I did a short film called Tasnim, who is a character from the feature film. It was a twelve-minute movie about a young girl whose father marries a second wife. He’s coming to the village for the first time, and the young girl is really looking forward to seeing him, so she’s running after him the whole movie, but in the end she realizes that now things are different. It’s a coming-of-age story of a ten-year-old girl, and for me it was magic on set. I loved it. The whole crew felt like we were doing something good. When we finished the film, we pressed some DVDs, and the Bedouins started passing it around their villages and watching it without me. They were talking about it all the time, and whenever I would come back, they would say, “When are you coming back again? When are you going to do another film?” So I thought, “OK, I can go ahead and start making a feature.”

It took me another four and a half years to write it. I would go to a village for a few days and hear stories and comments about the way they see their culture that were really important for me to put in. I didn’t want to be an outsider putting my perspective on things; I wanted to get their inner perspective and show this from their point of view. So it was always, “Oh here’s something else,” so I would go back and write a draft, then return to the village, spend a few more days there, again hear something that made me think, “Oh, I got it all wrong.” Then I’d go back home, erase the last draft, write another draft. After four and a half years, I finally thought, “OK, now I feel like this is truthful enough.” I gave it to some of the Bedouins to read, and I got their approval that it’s OK. That’s the answer to your question about being authentic to the Bedouin experience.

As for your question about being universal, I think my filmmaking is all about characters. It’s not about saying, “This is the Bedouins, this is how they live, it’s far away.” It’s about characters. It’s about the daughter, it’s about the mother, it’s about the father, it’s about the sisters, it’s about the boyfriend, it’s about the relationships. There are so many themes in the film. Even though the laws of this culture are different or more patriarchal or more extreme, all over the world relationships are still the same for everyone. Even the case of the second wife—the father leaving his family to take another wife is something we’re all very familiar with. Here it’s very extreme because he takes his second wife and stays in the same yard, but the core of the relationship is the same. I was trying really hard not to do an ethnographic film about Bedouin life. I wanted the ethnographic background to just be background and the main thing about the film would be the characters, the themes, the relationships, the feelings.

Wherever I go in the world, the first comment I always hear is, “It’s just like in our culture. I see myself in this movie. I see my mom in this movie.” I heard that in South Korea, I heard that in Taiwan, in Germany, in Spain. Everywhere I go I hear the same thing and it makes me feel proud that I achieved this, because it was very important to me.

DT: In fact, that was my next question. The mother-daughter relationship was one of the most authentic I’ve ever seen onscreen, both in the way it was written and the way it was acted. It was almost tangible, something you could feel yourself experiencing. What was the process of getting that onscreen?

EZI do a lot of rehearsals with the actors. Every scene in this movie was rehearsed for at least a few hours. If it didn’t work, we did another rehearsal until we all felt like we had it right. The way I do rehearsal is not like a director; it’s a democracy. We start by speaking about the scene and what everybody is feeling and where they think their feelings are at the same moment and where they think they start and where they end. In the beginning it’s just a big discussion about feelings. Then we start working on it and get every word to be specifically where it should be, always talking about what’s going on internally. The actors always know why they say every sentence. It’s always about where this scene is located and the range of emotions it goes through in the film.

When we had everything really tight and we knew exactly what we were doing, we came on set and reopened everything again. Before I shot every scene we’d rehearse for thirty, forty-five minutes on set, and each time it completely changed what we’d planned. The scene was completely different because we’d been through such a process that now it was even deeper. I made my crew crazy because we’d known exactly what the shots were and then I changed everything, but I think it really made this film special, because we were improvising all the time. But while we were improvising we still remembered exactly what we’d planned, and we could impose it on the new information.

DT: “This will never happen to my daughter” is a subtext running throughout the entire film. How close is that sentiment to contemporary Bedouin reality?

EZ: My mom started taking still photographs of Bedouins ten years ago. In a matter of days she switched from being the fly on the wall to being completely the opposite, because there were so many people that she liked and loved, and so many people kept telling her, “You have to shoot this family too, you have to come to this house too, you have to come to this village too.” They were so loving, and kept telling her that God brought them together, that she got so much into these relationships that she started spending all her time in the villages. If I, and my father, and my sister ever wanted to see her, we had to go with her. And it was like that for years.

That’s how I came to the subject—for years we would go with my mom to meet Bedouins. It became a family bonding thing; we became good friends with a lot of families. We would go to visit them, they would come to visit us, and basically for me it was hanging with friends for years. Then some of the young girls realized my mom’s a very good photographer, and they asked her to come and take pictures of their weddings. This was just a personal favor—she couldn’t do anything with the photos because they’re very traditional and she couldn’t publish them later—but as a personal favor she started going to weddings, sometimes twice a week, taking pictures and making albums for their personal keep. These weddings last two days, and I went with her a lot. I started seeing many different weddings, meeting different women, hearing different stories.

At one wedding we met a young woman who had gone to university, where she met a boyfriend who was not from her village. Her family found out, and they told her, “You can’t go out anymore. You’re going to stay home and marry the man we choose for you.” This young woman loved her family very much, and she went through a whole debate about what to do. In the end she decided there’s no way she could hurt her family and she would marry the man they chose. At her wedding—in a scenario that was very much like a scene from my movie—she was waiting in her new bedroom, which she’d just stepped into for the first time to meet the new husband. The way that it’s done, women celebrate separately, and the men celebrate separately. There is no ceremony. The woman is brought to her new house, the man has a parade of men bringing him to the new house, and when he walks into the bedroom and there’s a second when they see each other for the first time, they’re married. So my mom and I were with this young woman in the bedroom, and we hear the parade of men coming and there are shouts and the skies are filled with fireworks, and she looks at me and my mother and says, “For my daughter, things are going to be different.” That’s how I got the theme... and that’s the moment I decided I had to make this film.

DT: How did you react when she said that?

EZ: We were trying to be happy for her. We were supportive of her. It tore my stomach, but I tried not to show it.

DT: This was your first time shooting a feature. What did you learn, and what would you do differently?

EZ: You should be asking me this question in five years. Right now I’m very emotional about the film. In every step of the way, it felt that this is meant to happen, and something is keeping it safe. Even if it didn’t happen the way I planned it, it turned out better, so I don’t think I would have done anything different with this movie. The only thing that I’m hoping is that the next movie will take a shorter time, because the one month that I was directing on set was the best month of my life. I had so much fulfillment and fun and love and faith and craziness, but it was filled with so many good things in one month that when it ended I said there’s no way it’s going to take me another ten years to get to this moment.

DT: You were absolutely born to do this. You shot in Bedouin villages. How did that go?

EZ: It was amazing, because we only went to villages where I had friends or friends of friends, so we were very welcome everywhere we went. Everyone knew we were coming from a good place and that we could be trusted. I insisted on shooting on location; I didn’t want to hear anything else because (a) it was important to me to be as authentic as possible and (b) I wanted to be surrounded by Bedouins of all types so that if I made a mistake, someone would tell me on set. I didn’t want to find out later. So it was really, really good, because first of all it’s reality onscreen—it’s not creating reality onscreen. Second of all, we were always surrounded by people who were helping us and telling us if we needed any assistance with the culture or anything like that. And the Bedouin culture is very hospitable and very welcoming, so my crew felt very, very welcome.

DT: I assume the Bedouins have seen the film.

EZ: Before I locked it I showed it to a lot of Bedouins who were working on set with me, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any mistakes. That was actually my best screening to date. It was a lot of fun for me to watch them see it. They were very emotional—they were laughing, they were talking throughout the whole screening about the characters. At the end they said they were really proud to be part of it and that it was a really good representation of their life. Since then, the film is screening in three different theatres in the south, right next to the villages. We never thought the Bedouins would come to watch it, but they’re filling the theatres, and you can see their responses all over Facebook. Most of them are saying really, really good things, like “It’s like watching reality onscreen. I wish there was a second part. I didn’t want it to end.” Some of them are making really long comments, analyzing the film and understanding everything I tried to do. For me that means more than any award. It’s just so emotional to see the Bedouins’ reaction to this film, especially when it’s people I don’t know.

DT: Was there a difference between the way the men responded to the film and the way the women responded to the film?

EZ: Not that I can tell. I didn’t do a screening for women and a screening for men, so I can’t really compare, but from what I’m seeing so far, people are responding very well from every corner.

DT: Why is the film called Sand Storm?

EZ:I do have a reason, and I’ll tell you the reason in a second, but it was supposed to be a temporary name, a working title. We got into the Locarno Film Festival for a rough-cut competition, and we won. The film started getting so much noise and so much attention with the title Sand Storm that we couldn’t replace it anymore. I never wanted to stick with it, but I didn’t have a choice after the festival.

In terms of my reason for choosing it, you get sand storms in the desert most seasons of the year. They’re so thick that even if you put your hand out, you can’t see your fingers. You can’t see anything ahead of you but sand. It’s all a mess. Then, when the storm goes away, everything is clear and back to normal again, but on the floor there’s still a surface of dust that sticks and now you’re walking on the stuff. It’s like a symbol for the film.

DT: There was a big furor at the Ophir Awards [the Israeli Academy Awards] that had absolutely nothing to do with your film.

EZ: Thank you, yes.

DT: As an Israeli, can you talk about that moment?

EZ: I can only answer it personally, not as an Israeli. I’ve been touring the world with this film for a year, and I’ve been on my own most of the time. I’ve won a lot of awards, and the first thing I say onstage, even in Sundance, is “I wish my crew was here with me to celebrate.” At the Ophir Awards, the crew couldn’t come up because of the mess, and it was just me accepting the award again. It was supposed to be the best moment for this movie. There were thirty people from the production there because we were nominated for twelve awards, and it was supposed to be such a celebration, but again I felt alone, and I just felt sad.

It was not supposed to be a sad moment. I left the awards ceremony feeling very mixed, because on the one hand we had an amazing night—we won six awards—but on the other hand it was a very sad moment for me. I ended up crying at the end. But then it was over and I had to walk home on the streets of Tel Aviv in my dress and my heels, holding the statue. People in the street started asking me, “What’s that statue, what’s going on?” and I yelled, “I just won an award for directing a movie!” The whole street started clapping me all the way back to my house.

For thirty minutes I was walking this way in my high heels, getting claps all the way back. Then I walked into my apartment, which is really small. There’s nowhere to put these heavy awards because no shelf can carry them, so I have the awards on my kitchen counter. The first thing you see when you walk into the apartment is the kitchen, and I saw the award from Sundance and I put the Academy Award [Ophir] next to the Sundance award, and I had this moment with myself, just thinking, “What an amazing year and how incredible this all is.” Ever since then, this is the moment I’m keeping with me.

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

EZ:One of the reasons I made this movie is that I feel like this community is very, very isolated and none of the other people get to look inside it. Even though it’s very close to Israelis—I show this in the film too, how the Bedouin village is right next to a main road—people don’t stop and they don’t look and they don’t see what’s going on inside the village.

Another reason I made this movie is that it was so easy for me to go into this world. I was so welcomed there. It’s so easy to connect to the world, yet they’re so isolated. One of the main reactions I get from Israelis is “Thank you for making this movie, because we now see what’s going on in there. We never knew, we never could tell. We never understood how they’re living, and now this is something we can see.” I think for Israel it’s eye-opening, and of course for the world it’s going to be eye-opening. I think this culture should be addressed and it should be shown and talked about. Yes, this movie is about characters and relationships and it’s very touching, but at the same time it’s speaking about a culture that’s important to be seen.

Sand Storm is currently playing at New York’s Film Forum, with a national rollout to follow. The author thanks Adam Walker of Film Forum for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk: http://earthwize.org/wordpress/directortalk. Copyright © Director Talk 2016.