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Sundance ’16: ‘Sand Storm’ Director Elite Zexer on the Lives of Bedouin Women in Israel

Sundance '16: 'Sand Storm' Director Elite Zexer on the Lives of Bedouin Women in Israel

Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize Winner, “Sand Storm” was written and directed by Elite Zexer. She and Lamis Ammar, the actress playing the oldest daughter in a family of girls who is an independent college educated woman, and I spoke at Sundance about the experience of making their first film together.

Taking place in a Bedouin village in Israel, the film opens as Layla is driving a car with her father to their home in the desert. She reveals her grades are not as high as her father wants as he teaches her how to drive. They arrive home as wedding festivities are being prepared by Layla’s mother Jalila who must host her husband Suliman’s marriage to a second, much younger wife. During the celebration, Jalila discovers that her eldest daughter Layla has a boyfriend at her university—a strictly forbidden liaison that would shame the family. As she tries to contain Layla’s situation by clamping down on her, her daughter, possessed of a boundless spirit, sees a different life for herself thereby causing chaos and strife within the family.

Sydney Levine: How did you come up with this story?

Elite Zexer:
My mother is a photographer and shot Bedouin villages for several years and brought me along with her. We also became very good friends with some of the Bedouins, visiting each other at our homes. About eight years ago, I escorted an 18-year-old to her arranged marriage ceremony to a man she had never met and she told me had a boyfriend in college. She said, “For my daughter, it will be different.”

When I made a short about a different culture (Bedouin) I liked the process and the Bedouins asked me when I would make another film.

What film background do you have?

Elite Zexer: I have two degrees in film. I graduated from Tel Aviv University with a BFA in film and an MFA in film directing. I made a short “Take Note” which won the Best Fiction Film Award at the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, and “Tasnin” which went to over 120 film festivals around the world and won several international awards. I also directed the documentary “Fire Department Bnei Brak” before I directed “Sand Storm”, my first feature.

How did you put this film together?

Elite Zexer: Four years ago I wrote a script trying to write from the Bedouin point of view as much as possible, of course knowing my own pov would also be there. I applied to the two public film funds in Israel and to two private funds. It happened so quickly that only one year ago, in January 2015 I was already in pre-production. The rough cut was done by August. We went to First Look at Locarno and we won the prize. John Nein from Sundance was a juror there, and so we have now come to Sundance.

It all felt like it was blessed from the sky. Everything fell into place all the time. It was always just right. Even when we ran out of time and had only 5 minutes to shoot the last scene, that turned out to be the best and strongest scene in the film.

We thought, “It just has to work!” and it did!

And how about you, Lamis? 

Lamis Ammar: This was my first feature. I studied theater in Haifa and I like cinema. This is the most interesting and challenging role I have played. I met the woman and seeing the finished film on the screen confirmed in a real and truthful way what my heart told me when I met her.

What do you think about the film?

I just saw it yesterday for the first time and I must see it again to understand all the details.

I knew before about the Bedouin in the south, but I am a Palestinian from Haifa so while there are some similarities, there are also many differences. It was a big process just to learn the accent even though we share a language.

Every time I see the Bedouin and learn more about them, I feel I want to be a part of them and to help in any way I can.  This strong young teenage university student is different from the others in her community.  Her father treats her as a liberated Bedouin but, for a female, the situation is very complicated.

As the writer of this interview, I want to point out certain background issues which, though they seem to have no direct connection to the story, are key to how the politics and policies of the Israeli government have created a marginal society for the Bedouins in spite of all the past support the Bedouins have given to the state of Israel.   It is easy to say “just look at the culture” as if it bore no relation to the larger societal and political realities.

In my experience speaking with people from Israel/ Palestine I find the Bedouin and Palestinian stories to be international.  Even as far away as Cuba, Cubans refer to people from the east of their island as “Palestinians” because of their outsider status in Havana. 

The fact that Layla is a student in the university is very unusual in the Palestinian Bedouin society.  It’s not acceptable — not because the men don’t allow it, but because the Bedouin themselves refuse to be part of the Israeli society.  They often do not know Hebrew, the official language of Israel. This reminds me of U.S. Native Americans whose languages have never been recognized officially by our government. Many Navajo (I don’t know about other tribes) do not speak English and their marginalization is astounding to anyone who visits the “reservations”; it is truly visiting another nation as far removed from the U.S.A. as the Bedouin are from the U.S.A.

To attend an Israeli University, everyone must speak and study in Hebrew.  The Israeli occupation of the Bedouin ancestral lands influences everyone’s social knowledge and lifestyle.  The Bedouin used to live freely in their own land until they were forced to leave for other places or to the city.  Some Bedouin stay put, but the act of staying makes them more conservative than previously. 

Some of their villages are unrecognized by the Israeli authorities and are under permanent threat of being demolished in order to create new Israeli settlements. Bedouin teenagers have been shot by the Israel police forces and there have been no trials for the police action.  This is a story that we in the U.S. have been hearing daily about our own citizens who happen to be African-American. We also hear about it in France with their North African-French youth. We call it police brutality but although the Palestinian Bedouins demonstrate daily, but no one hears them.

This film takes one by surprise. The mother’s controlled passion and impatience seethe through her.  You can see it in the set of her mouth and in the way she moves. Her daughters share her passion for life and one feels the pain of their predicament. Their incredible strength sustains them and a glimmering light of hope shines through the storm. 

The situation described above is the underlying and unspoken theme of the movie. It seeps through everything, one’s clothing and household and in the very grittiness of one’s teeth, like sand in a sand storm. 

Director/Writer Elite Zexer

Cast member Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal-Asfour, Haitham Omari, Khadija Alakel, Jalal Masarwa

Producers Haim Mecklberg, Estee Yacov-Mecklberg

Director of Photography Shai Peleg

Editor Ronit Porat

Total Running Time: 87 Minutes

International Sales: Beta Cinema

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