Lamis Ammar in "Sand Storm"

Sundance ’16 Review: A Thirst for Cultural Change in “Sand Storm”

There’s sadly nothing unusual about the premise of “Sand Storm,” though that’s hardly the fault of the filmmaker. While it is unlikely you’ve ever been to a Bedouin enclave in Southern Israel before, like so many other films that have emerged from the Middle East in recent years, Elite Zexer’s feature debut tells of women on the eve of a reckoning with the patriarchal society that has long dictated their lives. What is exciting, however, is how Zexer meticulously goes about constructing a multigenerational conflict between a mother and daughter that calls into question each of their approaches to achieving a measure of equity to have a fulfilling life.

At first, “Sand Storm” is slightly disorienting, but no more so for the audience than for Layla (Lamis Ammar) and her mother Jalila (Ruba Blal), who have the unfortunate task of helping out Suliman (Hitham Omari), their family’s patriarch prepare to get married for a second time. Progressive enough to send his daughter to the city to get an education, but oblivious to his first wife’s simmering disapproval of his nuptials to a much younger bride, Suliman is a maddening contradiction, holding power over the two despite being completely ineffectual. However, as upset as Jalila gets over having to cater a wedding for Suliman, she becomes even more incensed upon learning that Layla has met a boy from outside of the village as part of her studies, fearing the worst should Suliman ever learn of it since such a relationship is forbidden. Although Layla thinks those concerns are unfounded as beliefs that belong in the past, she is proved wrong beyond her wildest imagination.

There’s a suspenseful build to “Sand Storm” that reminds of the recent films of Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation,” “About Elly”), where characters’ perspectives are clearly established yet leave enough room for surprising changes of heart later that feel entirely consistent. Zexer also demonstrates a similar refusal to demonize her characters, no matter how cruel they can be to each other, often unwittingly. No matter how much one sympathizes with Layla, who is played with great poise by Ammar in her first film, Jalila and even Suliman are equally empathetic, beholden to traditions that are slowly dying, but unfortunately not fast enough for Layla’s sake.

Zexer moves effortlessly between these different perspectives, though at times the story can gloss over details that might be important for audiences unfamiliar with Bedouin culture. The fact that Suliman’s second wedding is being given by his first wife takes a moment to get used to and one of the film’s most intriguing moments also is one of its most potentially perplexing as Suliman’s new wife alludes to a past she never full explains in a confrontation with Layla that ends with both Layla and the audience wondering what exactly she’s referring to.

Still, what is clear is that Zexer shows a strong and steady hand as a writer/director, specializing in simple but powerful images and dialogue. Though the central story of “Sand Storm” may be familiar, the filmmaker distinguishes herself with intricate plotting and joins the company of a number of female filmmakers from Israel in recent years whose work feels revolutionary, not only in terms of form, but articulating a vision from the region we’ve never seen before. “Sand Storm” provides the satisfaction of a good ol’ fashioned family drama from an invigorating new point of view.

“Sand Storm” opens in New York at Film Forum on September 28th and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal on October 7. A full list of screenings and dates is here.

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