Film Review: Sand Storm

A deeply affecting, powerfully aching feminist story about a mother and daughter, trapped in a merciless cycle of patriarchy. Elite Zexer’s confident debut is a nuanced look at conservative customs where villains are deep down victims, too.
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At the start of Sand Storm, writer-director Elite Zexer’s remarkable and emotionally potent debut feature, we follow a conversation between a young woman and her father in a car. The barren and sparse setting is a Bedouin village in Israel’s Negev Desert, circa present time. And the conversation is focused on the school grades of Layla (Lamis Ammar, tremendously compelling and poignant), the daughter in question. This is an intriguing opening that at once informally (yet unmistakably) displays Zexer’s disinterest in gender stereotypes we routinely see in films set in conservative, male-led regions. It’s Layla behind the wheel, learning how to drive and it’s her grades—her future—that are at the center of the scene, which she shares with her seemingly progressive father Suliman (Hitham Omari). And it’s thanks to this scene that Zexer is able to establish and deeply examine the intricacies of what’s to come Layla’s way. In the stunning Sand Storm, which rips your heart apart little by little and gradually enriches your sense of empathy, everyone—including the increasingly more unforgivable Suliman—is a victim of sorts. And surely, not all victims are created equal in an unambiguously patriarchal society.

We quickly find out that it’s the day of Suliman’s wedding to his second wife (the first is Layla’s mother Jalila, played with astonishing depth by Ruba Blal-Asfour). In accordance with the tradition, a quietly angry Jalila, visibly simmering with fury and hurting deep down with a bruised womanly pride, dutifully helps with the wedding ceremony and welcomes her husband’s second wife. Zexer, who spent plenty of time in the region and has friends she frequently visits there, sets up the wedding proceedings with abounding detail, honoring the customs of the Bedouin every step of the way. The wedding, which comes right after the opening that establishes Suliman as a modern Middle Eastern male, is a purposefully jarring juxtaposition that heightens a sense of unease constantly present here. Is Suliman a bad man? Is the new bride going to be a spiteful villain? Is that the future that also awaits Layla?

Soon enough, Jalila, with whom Layla is often quarrelling and disagreeing, accidentally discovers that Layla has a boyfriend at school. Determined to break her relationship with the local boy, she earns the growing distrust of Layla, who thinks her father Suliman would side with her no matter what and take her feelings and wishes into consideration. But the reality, which Zexer reveals gradually amid an expertly concealed sense of tension, turns out to be quite different. Suliman, also acting against his will, forced by the expectations of the unforgiving customs around him, forces Layla to marry a suitor of his own choosing and exposes Jalila’s real intentions, hidden underneath her strict surface: to protect her daughters from a trapped future like hers. In one scene, Jalila, unafraid to confront Suliman in the privacy of their own home, asks him whether he does anything because he wants and not because he has to. We get the sense that he doesn’t.

It will be tempting to compare Zexer’s film to Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Oscar-nominated Mustang, which also explores similar themes around patriarchy. But Ergüven’s film plays like a universal, feminist fairytale with clear-cut monsters and saviors, whereas Sand Storm stands on more nuanced, measured grounds of realism. Layla’s eventual fate is predictable, but that hardly takes away from the direness of her situation. And Zexer is more interested in the finer details of her grim journey anyway, making the aftereffect of Sand Storm—an unapologetically feminist tale—a true punch in the gut. Via a scene where Layla is passing through a dark tunnel, and another where her young sister is staring at her behind window bars, she uses visual symbolism intelligently. The location, not only the village but also the two-partitioned house with an old and modern section (the latter of which is naturally occupied by the new bride), serves the story well, too. In the film’s most telling scene, Layla visits Suliman’s new wife in her home and grabs groceries from the fridge that they’re in dire need of, while listening to her life advice. “Don’t end up like me,” she suggests.

In the end, Zexer makes sure all the lonely and trapped people in her affectionate story receive their due, without sidestepping the weight of the impending tragedy: a young woman’s future, quietly destroyed in a patriarchal cycle.

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