Bedouin Dreams: Elite Zexer Talks Ancient Gender Bias in Israel’s Oscar Entry Sand Storm

Patriarchal societies—by definition—hinder the development of women’s abilities in roles outside of homemaking and providing care.

In the most extreme traditional groups, the power to make personal decisions, about marriage and other relationships, is also taken away from women and assigned to the male figures within each family. Although these practices have been slowly become less common, strongholds of chauvinism exist around the world. In Elite Zexer’s debut feature, Sand Storm (originally title Sufat Chol), the generational effects of ancient gender bias in an Israeli Bedouin community are subtly exposed through a young woman’s breaking away from her family’s binding restrictions.

With a naturalistic aesthetic, Zexer follows Layla (Lamis Ammar), a teenager who has fallen in love with a young man outside of her tribe. She drives and goes to school, but in spite of these liberties, her destiny is still at the mercy of her father, Suliman (Haitham Omari). Stuck in between a mother (Ruba Blal) facing the prospect of being a second wife, and a younger sister who doesn’t fully understand her own gender-based limitations, Layla tries to appeal to reason in a land where adhering to convention is the only correct way to live.

From Israel, Zexer spoke to MovieMaker about the lifelong relationship her family has had with the Bedouin community, the casting challenges their lifestyle imposed on the production, and the lack of villains in a film that doesn’t judge, but compassionately examines its characters’ conflicts.

Sand Storm won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has been chosen as Israel’s official Oscar submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Director Elite Zexer

Director Elite Zexer

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you get inserted into the Bedouin community and these women’s lives? What conversations did you have with people there in order to get a sense of the role of women within these societies?

Elite Zexer (EZ): It all started with my mom. She does a lot of things in her life, but one of those things is still photography. She started doing still photography in the Bedouin community 10 years ago, where she went from being a fly on the wall to the exact opposite in a matter of days. She met, and got really friendly with, a lot of people, and also got involved in many villages. It started taking up so much of her time that, if we wanted to see her, the whole family had to go with her to the villages. My dad, my sister and I started spending weekends and vacation days over there, and it became this whole family thing—that we were spending time in the villages and they were coming to visit us in the city. We became very involved with a lot of families, and then one day, I just felt like, I have to make this movie. It was me making a movie about friends, more than me going to research a topic I wanted to talk about. First I got to know them, and then I felt like I had to make this movie.

MM: The film is definitely a generational story about women in this village, about this mom, the daughter and the younger sibling. Did you feel a certain connection in the fact that your mom had introduced you to this community?

EZ: I don’t know if that’s where I got the idea from, but I can definitely tell you that when you write a script, you insert yourself into the script. You can’t write anything but what you know. I’m guessing that my relationship with my family and the generation thing—it’s in there somewhere too. Because my mom introduced me to the topic and the presence of a very strong mother and daughter relationship in the film, there has got to be a connection.

MM: How did Layla, your protagonist, come about? What was your process of creating this character who goes against the status quo of this community?

EZ: It started with a true story: Many girls that I know go out to university, and they meet a boy. Their families tell them, “You can’t marry this man; you have to stay here,” and that they have to choose between their families and their love. I know at least 50 girls with this story. So I chose very powerful and strong women to base this film on because they are the women who most inspired me. The Bedouin women I met were the women that got to my heart.

When I initially wrote Layla, she was more introverted. She starts off keeping to herself and learned to speak for herself during the process of the film. But when I met Lamis, the actress, she had so much attitude and was so outspoken that she couldn’t play someone like that. At the beginning, I thought she was all wrong for the part, but my casting director kept saying, “She’s the one; don’t [pass her up].” While working with Lamis, I kept finding myself thinking about how she would act [in each scene, instead of Layla]. After every audition I found myself rewriting the script [for Lamis]. In the end, I realized that I had rewritten the character. It was the same story, same outline, everything that happened, even the same dialogue, but something about the character had changed after I met the girl who would eventually play her.

MM: Did you cast within in the Bedouin community? Did all the actors come from there?

EZ: You can’t cast Bedouin women because the population is very traditional; you can’t show Bedouin women on screen. I had to choose actresses who are not Bedouin originally, but some of the men, including the grandfather, are Bedouin from the villages. None of the women, even the kids, are Bedouin.

MM: In a sense the tradition that we see in the film carries on to the process of the making of the film, because you couldn’t even cast women living there.

EZ: There was no other way. I shot on location. I tried to make it as authentic as possible and, when you try to something authentic inside a closed community, you have to take into consideration everything that’s closed about it. You can’t make the film any other way. I did try for a short while to cast women from the community. There was one girl I met who wanted to become an actress. She had been in a play and agreed to audition for us. When I was filming her in the audition, she said, “You’re not going to show that to anyone, are you?” I told her that if she was going to be in a film, people were going to see her. She said, “Yes, but you can film me from certain angles, right? You can film me from the back so that people won’t see my face.” That was the one girl who agreed to audition and, in the end, I realized there was no way.

MM: Given that Bedouins rarely appear on screen, would you say that this is a community that lacks representation in Israeli cinema?

EZ: I know that there have been at least a couple of fictional films about the Bedouin community made in the past four years but they were also very concentrated on men. I don’t know if there are any films concentrating on Bedouin women. To my knowledge, this is the first fiction film where the major focus is solely on Bedouin women and what’s going on with them in the Bedouin community.

Ruba Blal plays Jalila in Sand Storm

Ruba Blal plays Jalila in Sand Storm

MM: As a director, what’s your process on set? It’s such a naturalistic film. Do you do rehearsals, or is there more improvisation involved?

EZ: The main thing for me is acting. First of all, it was very important fro me not to make an ethnographical film. Not to have the film say, “This is the Bedouin life. See how they live?” No, to have a film about characters, about Layla and her mother and her father. The relationships are the core thing of the film, and everything about the lives of the Bedouin is the background because that’s how it is in real life. The way we live is always in the background, and the main focus in our lives is always the relationships and the drama—that’s what I wanted to do here too.

I achieved this was through a lot of rehearsals. Every scene was rehearsed for a least a few hours and, if it didn’t work, we did another few hours until we felt it worked. Before we started shooting, we had everything exactly the way we wanted it. Then, when we arrived on set, we’d rehearse again for at least 30 minutes before we started shooting. By the time we got to the set and re-opened the rehearsal, everything had changed. The mise-en-scène we had set up had changed, and we had to improvise on set, while still keeping in mind exactly what we meant to do. So it was a combination of improvisation and a very specific idea of how we wanted to make this film.

MM: There’s an amazing sense of place in the film, both in terms of the desert landscape, but also in the houses of the two wives. I love the scene where the clothes are hanged up to dry. It looks like a maze made out of clothes, where secrets are hiding. Tell me about coming up with these ideas of the places the characters live in.

EZ: Writing the script was a very long process. It took me four and a half years. The process involved me writing something, going to the Bedouin villages, staying for three or four days, hearing stories, hearing viewpoints, getting ideas and then going back and rewriting everything I had written. It was very important for me not to do this as an external presence, but to try to do as much as I can from an internal point of view. Through all of these ideas, I always went back to the villages.

MM: Can you tell me about the male characters, in particular Layla’s father? It seems like he wants to let her do things. He teaches her how to drive, and he wants her to go to university, but when the men in the village come around and influence his thinking, he has less agency. He wants to fit in. Tell me about creating that character.

EZ: The father is one of my favorite characters. There are no villains in this film. They’re all stuck in this reality, and they’re trying to do their best under the circumstances. Layla’s father is also stuck. He has all these rules to live by, and the way he sees himself at the beginning of the film is as a really good family man. A good husband, and a good father. It was very important to give his daughters everything that he can. During the movie, it’s all being stripped way from him. All of a sudden, he’s not a good husband anymore, and not a good father—first to one daughter, and then to the second—and he doesn’t know how to handle it.

MM: The younger sister is still running around. She doesn’t have to wear the hijab yet. She’s a young character who still doesn’t know what’s coming to her and will be expected of her. We sort of know what her destiny is, but she doesn’t see it yet.

EZ: One of the girls I knew was getting married to someone she didn’t love. During her wedding she told me and my mother that, for her daughter, things were going to be different. For me, this movie is sort of representing that desire. I know that she genuinely thought that, but I honestly don’t know if it’s true. This film is for someone whose future may or may not be different. We have no way of knowing.

MM: Without revealing how the film ends, I want to commend you on how amazing the ending is. There’s no big speech, but we know exactly what’s happening in that final scene.

EZ: I always knew what the ending would be. I knew what this film was going to be from the moment I just told you: the woman at her wedding telling us that, for her daughter, things were going to be different. I never had a different ending in mind, and it was what I built the story around. How do I get to this point, and what is the best way to explain it?

A wedding scene from Sand Storm

A wedding scene from Sand Storm

MM: There’s been a lot of talk around this being the first Israeli Oscar submission that is entirely in Arabic. Do you feel that it is important for the country of Israel to submit films that represent diverse experiences?

EZ: I feel like part of why I made this film is because the Bedouins are somewhat isolated, and people don’t really know what’s going on in there. It was really important for me to make this film in order for people to see what’s going on inside this culture. When Israelis see it, they thank me for giving them an inside view into something they’ve never seen, even though it’s so close. I think that, not just in Israel, but all over the world, it’s important to have this view into something that’s part of life here but not seen very easily. So that’s one answer.

A second answer that I can give to this question is that it was really important to me for this film to be international. By international, I mean that you don’t watch it and think, “That’s a different culture than mine, with different rules,” but rather the opposite. You see it and think, “Even though it’s so far away, I can really see myself in this, and I can really relate to these people, even thought their rules are so different than my own.” Everywhere I went in the world, that’s the response that I got. Even in South Korea, the first person in the audience raised his hand and said, “It’s just like in our culture!” Everywhere I went, that’s the response I got. For the Academy members who determined Israel’s Oscar entry, it was the same response. I think they genuinely connected with and enjoyed this movie, and that’s why they chose it.

MM: In the U.S. we are very conscious that there are not enough female voices in film, and that women directors don’t get equal opportunities. Is that something that you see in the Israeli film industry?

EZ: When I made “Tasnim,” which is the shorter, 12-minute version of this movie, six years ago, it won the award for Best Women’s Film at the Women’s Film Festival. The numbers [of female voices] are getting bigger and bigger, so I think it’s getting better, but it’s still very far away from being 50 percent. It needs to be 50 percent because women are making amazing films right now in Israel. These films are very successful with audiences, festivals and crowds here in Israel, and women should be given the chance to make just as much if not more.

MM: Are you excited, now that the film is representing Israel, to come to the U.S. and attend the screenings, and do all the awards events?

EZ: I’ve had the pleasure of coming to the U.S. three times this year—to Sundance, Seattle and Traverse City—and I won awards at all of them. I’ve also been to Canada for TIFF. It has always been such a pleasure to screen in North America, I have to say. It’s always get the best reactions, and meet such warm people. I always love it so now I’m even more excited. MM

Sand Storm is currently in theaters, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

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