Elite Zexer received her BFA and MFA from Tel Aviv University, the latter in film directing. Her previous short films are "Take Note," which won the Best Fiction Film Award at the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, and "Tasnim," which was featured in over 120 film festivals around the world and won several international awards. She also directed the documentary short "Fire Department, Bnei Brak" before helming her first feature, "Sand Storm." (Press materials)
"Sand Storm" will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
EZ: "Sand Storm" is a family drama that takes place in a Bedouin village in the Israeli dessert. It tells the story of two women, both dealing with life-changing events at the same time: Jalila, a 42-year-old woman, whose husband had just married a second, much younger wife; and Layla, her 18-year-old daughter, whose secret, strictly forbidden love affair, was just revealed.
The two women have very different views of the world, and they each try to fight individually, but they fail. Their whole family falls apart, and everything they believe in shatters. They are forced to understand that if they wish to survive, they will have to start seeing the world from each other's eyes.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
EZ: My mother is a stills photographer, and ten years ago she began photographing Bedouin women from various villages in the dessert. One day, she asked me to join her. I was immediately captivated. A day turned into weeks, then months, then years. These women became very close friends, and their stories became very close to my heart.
On one of our visits, we escorted a young woman during her wedding to a strange man, a man she only married to please her family, while she secretly loved another. Minutes before she met him for the first time, she turned to me and said, "This will never happen to my daughter." I looked at her and felt my stomach twitching. That's the moment I knew that I had to make this movie.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
EZ: The biggest challenge I faced was making a film about a culture that is not my own. The traditions, beliefs, customs, language -- all were very different from mine. While understanding that this is something I could never bypass or ignore, and by this I mean that this film will always be from an outsider, I still wanted to give it my best shot and have it feel as if it were an internal voice.
I spent years getting to know girls and women who went through the experiences portrayed in my film and rewrote the script again and again until I felt like it was accurate enough to give a voice to their ways of thinking and of seeing the world. I studied their language. I made a short film and screened it in the villages, getting their reactions and feedback to the way I was intending to film their world.
I shot on location in four different Bedouin villages and had Bedouins on my crew, helping and giving advice whenever needed.
But most importantly, I treated the story as a universal story. This film is not about the customs or the traditions; they are there and they are present on screen, but they are not the issue. The issues are within the characters, their relationship and the drama. In that sense, it doesn't matter where I come from ,because being a daughter, mother, girlfriend or any part of a family dynamic is a universal topic that happens everywhere, to everyone. And these are the focus of the film. And, ultimately, I think they are also its biggest strength.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
EZ: Actually, my desire while I was making the film was to not know or decide in advance what people will think or feel when they leave the theater.
My film speaks about many different subjects: a struggle to change the rules while living in a society which is bounded by very harsh limits, modernism vs. tradition, determinism, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, the evolution of generations, the disintegration of the family unit and much more. I felt like directing the viewer towards a specific subject out of the bunch would diminish the many layers of this story. I wanted each viewer to connect to whatever subject or subjects he relates to the most.
In addition, I tried my hardest to leave the film with an open end, not in terms of the story, but in terms of its conclusion. I think the ending can be read in many different ways, and I am happy with each and every one of them. Every read of the film is legit. Every thought a viewer might have in the end is blessed, just as long as she has one.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
EZ: Surround yourselves with people who are eager to work with you, who are as passionate about the film as you are and that you know in your gut they will be there to support you when you need them most. Once you do that, I hardly think that being a woman will be an issue on set. Once the set is run by emotions like love, devotion, friendship, support, faith, passion and well-being, [being] a woman can only be a huge bonus.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
EZ: My film was funded by two Israeli film funds: the Rabinovich Film Fund and Gesher, and two private investors. In Israel the usual way to obtain a budget for a feature film is to submit it to film funds, where lecturers read it and decide which of the projects will receive financing for production. Usually it's very few films out of hundreds.
If you don't receive money, you just keep on submitting until you are lucky enough to be chosen. Fortunately, we received money for production almost straight away. Once you receive money from the film fund, you must raise the rest of the budget from different sources. This whole process took almost a year, but I used the time to keep working on the script and to cast the film.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
EZ: I never have one favorite film. I always have at least ten films that I've just seen and fell in love with, and they are my new all-time favorites.
In recent years, I think some of the strongest women's films I've seen came out of Israel. Films such as "Princess" by Tali-Shalom Ezer, "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsallem" by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, "Zero Motivation" by Talya Lavie, "She's Coming Home" by Maya Dreifuss, "Barash" by Michal Vinik and many, many more. They keep reinventing the local cinema and its rules, thus creating a whole new and exciting wave for Israeli cinema.