A Bedouin village in Northern Israel. When Jalila's husband marries a second woman, Jalila and her daughter's world is shattered, and the women are torn between their commitment to the patriarchal rules and being true to themselves.
She may have a mobile phone, driving lessons and a university education, but just how much freedom does a young Bedouin woman have? The answer is complicated and Israeli-Bedouin film Sand Storm fully conveys this complexity in a parent-daughter drama that’s powerfully specific – yet universally resonant – right from the opening scene.
Here, we see a father, Suliman (Haitham Omari), teaching his spirited 18-year-old daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar), to drive their Toyota truck. They bump along the desert roads of Southern Israel towards their remote village of shacks and shabby huts. She’s wearing a hijab and lots of blue eye-shadow. He chides her for checking her phone while she’s driving, but she wants to find out her exam results. He’s curious too. Sadly, the marks are mediocre. The father is shocked and disappointed – he’d expected 90 per cent – but Layla is unapologetic. ‘At least I tried,’ she says, stopping the truck so they can swap seats and avoid the eyes of their fellow villagers, who presumably disapprove the sight of a woman behind the wheel.
It turns out the wooden frame in the back of the truck is a marriage bed. Layla’s father is about to wed a second wife and Layla’s mother, Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), the first wife, is seething with resentment. She’ll host the festivities and formally welcome the new wife to the family as tradition demands, but only through gritted teeth. Away from the all-female wedding party (where the women, for some reason, don fake handlebar moustaches), she lashes out at her four daughters. When she discovers love messages from a strange boy on Layla’s phone, her anger is cold and terrifying and she forbids the girl from returning to school. A proper husband from their own tribe must be found straight away. Layla’s father agrees, but the match he proposes is an insult to Jalila, who, for all her rage, wants an attractive man for her bright and beautiful daughter.
"What could have been a simple and familiar feminist tale of a modern daughter thwarted by patriarchal traditions, takes on a new hue as we begin to better understand Layla’s mother and her own rebellions, both against her family of origin and her weak husband."
What could have been a simple and familiar feminist tale of a modern daughter thwarted by patriarchal traditions, takes on a new hue as we begin to better understand Layla’s mother and her own rebellions, both against her family of origin and her weak husband. Blal-Asfour shines in this role, complicating our initial sympathies for her wayward daughter. There’s one quiet scene in which she takes a cigarette from her estranged husband and draws on it with practised ease. As they smoke together, Suliman and Jalila let down their defenses for a moment of intimacy. It’s an intriguing portrait of a long marriage, painted in just a few deft strokes.
It’s in moments like these that debut writer-director Elite Zexer’s economical screenplay makes the best sense. At other times, such economy demands too much of viewers, who must scramble to understand where in the world we are, and what the rules of play are within this ethnic group. Why do they live in shacks in the desert? What is their relationship to Israel at large? What are their belief systems? There’s also that heart-sinking feeling of watching yet another story of female oppression with only a glimmer of hopefulness and a dash of dark humour to prevent total despair. Nevertheless, Sand Storm is a perceptive and thought-provoking drama in an original setting. Among its many awards and accolades, it won the 2016 Sundance Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema) as well as Best Picture and Best Director at the 2016 Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscars). Sand Storm is Israel’s nomination for Best Foreign Language film at the 2017 Academy Awards.
Sand Storm opens in Australia on December 1.