November 20, 2018

Israeli filmmaker feeling the rush of her ‘Sand Storm’

There are storms in the hearts of women, Israeli filmmaker Elite Zexer tells us in her feature film debut, “Sand Storm.” 

Set in a Bedouin village in southern Israel, the film opens as 18-year-old Layla drives a truck under the watchful eye of her father, Suliman. That Layla has her hands on the wheel and speaks to her father with playful sauciness suggests she has an agency that turns out to be deceptive. 

When they arrive home, preparations are underway for a wedding — Suliman is about to take a younger, second wife — leaving his current wife, Jalila, and therefore his entire family, on the verge of upheaval.  

Polygamy, the film suggests, is hardly a recipe for familial harmony. 

In January, when “Sand Storm” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it was roundly praised for its portrayal of dynamic, uneasy women caught between the demands of tradition and the tug of modern aspiration. The film was awarded the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, a game-changing accolade for its upstart filmmakers, but that proved only the beginning for the 35-year-old Zexer. 

Last month, “Sand Storm” took home six Israeli Ophir awards — including best picture and best director — and is the first movie shot entirely in Arabic to become Israel’s submission to the Academy Awards for best foreign language film. 

When I met Zexer via Skype from her Tel Aviv apartment recently, the whirlwind of publicity and acclaim was finally catching up with her.

“I’m walking on clouds,” she said with a smile. “I finished this film, and then a week later I was already at Sundance, so I feel like ever since then I haven’t had time to stop and breathe and digest, because it’s just getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

The praise is especially meaningful given that this is Zexer’s first feature film, for which she labored nearly a decade to bring to the screen. 

“The whole thing started with my mother,” Zexer said. As a hobby, “she started spending so much time photographing [Bedouin] villagers that if I ever wanted to see my mom, I had to go there.”

Weekend visits to Bedouin villages eventually turned into vacations, and soon Zexer and her family were deeply enmeshed in the Bedouin community. 

“I feel like a lot of Israelis pass by these roads every day and the villages are just off the road, and they don’t stop to go inside,” Zexer said. “So I thought I should show other people what’s going on there; the way they live; that they have no water, no gas, no sewer system. And their houses are cracked because they don’t have any foundation. This is something I don’t talk about out loud [in the film], but it is in every frame.”

Elite Zexer

Part of the reason it took Zexer 10 years to make her first movie is that she was determined to study Bedouin culture before telling a story about it. She also never planned to become a filmmaker. 

“I spent most of my life studying science. Then after the army, I did the world trip like everyone does and then went to study biotechnology engineering,” she said. “But after one semester, I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a lab, studying genes. For the first time, I stopped and I asked myself, ‘What do you really want to do?’ ” 

In 2008, Zexer submitted a short film she had made to the Sundance festival, which was rejected for the official program but caught the organizers’ attention. She was invited to submit a script to their screenwriting lab — a week before the final deadline — and she knew she wanted to make a movie about Bedouins. 

“I locked myself in my house,” she said of writing that first draft. “I stayed up for a week, I didn’t sleep. By the end of the week, I read what I wrote and I thought, ‘I have no idea how to write a script’ and I can’t jump into making a film about Bedouins without exploring a culture so far away from my own.’ So I said ‘stop’ and I went to film school and got my graduate degree.”

In 2010, when she decided to return to the writing process, Zexer began spending more time visiting with the Bedouins, who by now, four or five years after she first met them, had become her friends. She studied their daily life, talking with men and women about their dreams, fears and views of the world. 

“The Bedouin condition in Israel is very complex,” she said. “They are living on land that is not considered ‘theirs,’ even though they’ve been there since before the country was founded.”

But political stalemate is not the only thing holding back Bedouins. Zexer got a unique glimpse into the culture early on, when her mother began photographing village weddings. One night, Zexer recalled, they attended the wedding of a young woman who had broken loose from housework to attend classes at a university. But when she met a young man she liked there, her parents forbade her from returning to school. Zexer and her mother were present the night of this woman’s wedding, an arranged marriage that crushed her dreams. 

“We could hear the parade of men approaching and the whole village was lit up with fireworks,” Zexer recalled. “It was seconds before she was going to meet her husband for the first time, and she was upset. She turned to me and my mom and said, ‘For my daughter, things are going to be different.’ ”

The weight of that moment provides the framework for “Sand Storm,” which is fittingly bookended by two weddings, neither of which provides much hope or joy for the brides. Instead, it is the drama between these events that conveys a female rebellion is brewing: Layla wants to marry the boy she met at a university, while Jalila burns with disgust and resentment at her husband’s neglect.

Zexer handles these dynamics with deep sensitivity, even though she personally has little in common with her protagonists.

“I’m a secular girl from Tel Aviv,” she said. “I don’t live in a patriarchal world at all. But I think many of the themes are [universal] — the mother-daughter relationship, the first [love] relationship, the husband-wife relationship. Even if the Bedouin rules are patriarchal, the core of the relationship is the same.”

Still, it is unusual and even tricky for an Israeli Jew to make a film about one of Israel’s Arab communities, so to that end, Zexer employed an Arabic-speaking cast and refrained from casting Jews into acting roles. 

“[Having] Jews play Arabs just feels too far away. It didn’t feel right,” she said. “And since I couldn’t use Bedouins in the film, because you can’t shoot Bedouin women, because they’re very traditional, I tried to take the next closest thing.” 

Zexer’s fidelity to truth and authenticity made me wonder if she feels a special responsibility to tell the stories of Israel’s minorities. 

“I don’t go out and seek minorities to tell their stories,” she said, “but I spend my life trying to make friends with everyone I can, no matter where they came from.”

While the women in her film stew in “quiet revolt,” as a New York Times review put it, Zexer herself is on the ascending arc of a burgeoning career. 

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” she said, looking back at a decade steeped in this family-centered story. “It’s changed the way I think about life.”

“Sand Storm” opens Oct. 7 in Los Angeles.