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Sand Storm: A stand-off between unarmed women

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- The tension between tradition and modernity is ramped right up in this family drama from Elite Zexer, Israel’s contender for a golden statuette at next year’s Oscars

Sand Storm: A stand-off between unarmed women

The restrictive conventions of traditional cultures is such a well-tapped theme that it seems like it shouldn’t be possible to coax another drop of interest out of it, but Sand Storm [+see also:
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manages to offer a fresh perspective on the issue of arranged marriage by immersing us in the customs and everyday life of a southern Israeli Bedouin village. The film was written and directed by Jewish Israeli filmmaker Elite Zexer, whose earlier work includes Take Note (2008) and Tasmin (2010). Her latest film, an ethnographic melodrama, screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and was awarded both the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic section at Sundance and the Best Film Award at the Israel’s Ophir Awards. On the back of this success, Sand Storm is set to represent Israel in the Best Foreign Language Film category at next year’s Oscars. 

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The story unfolds in the arid Negev desert, where Layla (Lamis Ammar), a young university student and the film’s protagonist, lives with her mother Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) and younger sisters in a Bedouin village. Her father, Suliman (Haitham Omari) returns home one day accompanied by a second wife, and, much to Jalila’s displeasure, the entire tribe gets together to celebrate the marriage. Meanwhile, Layla has become romantically involved with another university student, a boy from another tribe. When their relationship is discovered, Layla’s parents are implacable, and her father immediately arranges for her to marry Munir—who, her mother retorts, is one of the least eligible men in the entire tribe. Jalila orders Suliman to come home only when he has found a decent husband for his daughter, and for her audacity she is banished from the house. Layla baulks at the idea of stepping into her mother’s maternal role, but eventually finds herself forced to choose between abandoning everything she knows for love, or agreeing to marry Munir in the hope of restoring and healing her family. 

The village’s flimsy houses and lack of modern facilities are plain to see (there seem to be no washing machines nor decent stoves), but the bleakest impression is that made by the way in which Layla’s free will, and that of the other women in the community, is crushed under the weight of tradition. While Jalila unhesitatingly accepts her assigned role of mother and devoted wife, submissive to the needs of her husband and tradition, Layla tries to carve out a different kind of life, with her university studies and her relationship with the boy from another tribe. A collision between the two is inevitable, and when it comes it cracks open Jalila’s impassive veneer, revealing her unhappiness as she finds herself unable to accept her daughter’s decisions. 

The strength and severity of each of the characters is gradually established through the film’s crisp and original script, while the cinematography, the work of Shai Paleg, revels in the contrasts between the village of huts, surrounded by open countryside and overshadowed by a threatening sky, the landscapes of the desert at night and the gloomy, ramshackle interiors. Sand Storm successfully establishes a very intimate and personal dramatic dilemma, set against the backdrop of the Bedouin community’s most ancient traditions—such as the weddings and the dancing and fireworks that mark their celebration, or the typical dishes of the area, prepared using the most elementary of methods.

Sand Storm was produced by Israel’s 2-Team Productions, with German company Beta Cinema handling international sales.

(Translated from Spanish)

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