Arab culture’s misogynistic power dynamics are addressed with incisiveness, if too few specifics, by “Sand Storm,” the promising first feature from Israeli writer/director Elite Zexer. The filmmaker's debut concerns a contemporary Arab-speaking family living in the vast middle of nowhere, and the lack of contextual detail — about their nationality, their location, and about the rest of the surrounding area — immediately drains its premise of much-needed precision. There’s no reason for denying the audience this sort of basic information (press releases indicate the story is about Bedouins located in southern Israeli’s Negev Desert), and consequently, the film sets out on the wrong foot in critiquing the various ramifications of socially ingrained sexism.
Fortunately, while “Sand Storm” undercuts itself from the outset, it makes up for its hazy framework by clearly and evocatively delineating its main characters and their volatile interpersonal relationships. Dropping viewers into its scenario with little preparation, Zexer’s film initially fixates on Suliman (Haitham Omari), who travels by car with his teenage daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) to the home of his wife Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), where he’s to be married to his second wife — an event that proves painfully humiliating to Jalila, given that she must docilely preside over, and clean up after, these festivities. Like her mother, Layla wears a head scarf and is expected to quietly obey her elders, though that dictate becomes more difficult when Jalila finds out about Layla’s burgeoning involvement with a male classmate and, fearful that she’ll bring shame to herself and the family, forbids Layla from continuing to see the boy.
Jalila and Layla’s conflict plays out while Suliman is away with his new wife, and as Jalila struggles to wash clothes in an austere rural house whose generator has broken down — a situation that subtly underlines how these women are inherently expected to shoulder burdens of myriad sorts while men do as they please. The fact that Jalila is furious over Layla’s romance, and demands that Layla remain chaste by ending it, is fundamental to the tragedy of “Sand Storm,” which articulately details how chauvinistic cultural norms don’t simply allow men to oppress women, but also encourage women to oppress themselves, and their own daughters. Paying close attention to the shifting emotional forces at play, Zexer illustrates how, when rigidly constructed and enforced, archaic systems of control can be self-perpetuating, even amidst the trappings of modernity (cars, Layla’s iPhone).
It’s no surprise that, upon learning of Layla’s affair, Suliman quickly makes plans to have her married off to another suitor (whom she doesn’t know). Yet “Sand Storm” does take an unexpected twist when Jalila refuses to continue sitting idly by while her husband — having already shamed her via his second marriage to a younger woman — continues to tyrannically subjugate his daughter. Zexer’s handheld cinematography puts a premium on intimate close-ups and medium shots that reveal subtle changes in her characters’ expressions, the result being that when Jalila finally opts to act against her husband’s domination, there’s a potent sense of what’s driving her to take such risks, and of the thorny feelings awakened by her momentous decision.
As befitting such a tale, dreams of escape flourish only to be crushed under the weight of intractable circumstances, and the film's finale — and concluding image — resound with sadness over not only Jalila and Layla’s fates, but those of Layla’s younger sisters, who appear destined to follow in the footsteps of their persecuted ancestors. Though its verité aesthetics are often more serviceable than inspired, and its vague who-what-where-when-why set-up neuters some of its lingering impact, the film’s depiction of entrenched prejudice remains astutely realized. Never is that truer than in its few angry exchanges between Suliman and his wife and daughter, the latter of whom object to his pusillanimous use of the phrase “have to” as an excuse for his behavior — and, in doing so, expose misogyny as something to which men can choose to defy, provided they have a shred of decency and courage. [B]