Sundance 2016: Writer/Director Elite Zexer on Her Female-Driven Sand Storm

By  · Published on January 29th, 2016

“Sand Storm” (via Sundance Film Festival)

The news from Sundance usually gets taken over by headline-making deals of smash hits that overnight become the must-sees of the festival. Debuting Israeli director Elite Zexer’s exquisite and well-reviewed Sand Storm is a gem that might get overlooked amid all that noise, yet it deserves to be pronounced alongside this year’s best features of Sundance. Programmed under the World Dramatic Competition (with a distribution deal from Beta Cinema and a win from the Locarno International Festival for “works in progress” already under its belt), Sand Storm is receiving much love and support by those who have seen the film, but perhaps more quietly so than some of the “hot tickets”. Yet, among the 29 films I was able to see in this year’s line up, Zexer’s film is simply one of my favorites.

In her confident debut, writer/director Zexer tells the story of a mother (Jalila) and daughter (Layla) living in a Bedouin village. The film starts with the wedding of Layla’s father Suliman (Hitham Omari) to his second wife. As we get immersed in their lives and unusual living arrangements (with side-by-side living quarters that share a garden), Zexer introduces the layers of her story in a slow-burning cadence, which includes Layla’s secret love (from a tribe unwelcome by her family) and the source of her mother’s disapproval. Sand Storm is a startlingly rich film about women quietly suffering the sacrifices they are forced to make in patriarchal customs, with an assured visual language and a firm handle on its narrative pace.

I sat down with writer/director Elite Zexer in Park City. Below is an edited version of your conversation.

Tomris Laffly: What’s your first Sundance experience been like so far?

Elite Zexer: Amazing. [We have received] really good reactions. People are so lovely and so moved. The crowd is coming out to hug [us] at the end of the screenings. People are stopping us in the streets to say how much they loved the film. You know, we couldn’t have asked for better responses. There is so much love and recognition. We’re so excited.

Tell me a little about what drew you to this specific region and story of Bedouin women.

My mom is a still photographer and she started shooting Bedouins about 10 years ago and she became really, really good friends with some of them. She asked me to come and meet them, too. I also became really good friends with them. Then, we went through an experience that was very similar to what happened in the film. We were escorting an 18-year-old girl to her wedding. She was marrying a man that she had never met before. Her family chose for her, while she was secretly in love with someone else. She was very, very close with her family, specifically with her dad, and she decided that she can’t [upset them]. She was going to marry whom they want and in that three seconds that were just before she met him for the first time, we were in her new bedroom and we heard the parade of men, the fireworks in the sky and everything. She turned to me and she said, “For my daughter, things are going to be different.”

How long ago was this? And how much time did you spend there?

It was about 8 years ago. They’re my friends. If I wanted to spend some time, if I miss them, or if I want a vacation from life, you know…it’s friends. It’s not just spending time in the region. I go sometimes just a few hours and sometimes a few days.

You use a very specific location for the film: the house with two sections. One section is really run down and the other is more modernized. Was that built for the film or did you have to look for something specific?

I had very specific locations in my head, but I shot in different buildings than the ones that I was visiting. I actually just searched for houses that would show the drama as much as possible and that would show the direction I had in mind as best as possible. It was not all in the same location. The old house was in one village. The new house with in another village. Then the yard was in a third village. The old house is exactly as it is, and we didn’t touch it. [Same with the new house.] But the yard, we built part of it. The settings of the old house, the new house, the yard, and the family…that’s something [taken] from reality. I created something that [could reflect that]. Because I couldn’t take a family’s house and shoot a month at the same place, as people live there.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Layla goes to her dad’s second wife’s part of the house and awkwardly gets some food.

I love that scene too.

I think that’s the first time we see the second wife as a non-villain. She’s not a bad person and just doing what she has to do. Can you walk me through the layers you had in mind while you were writing that scene?

The first layer already serves the narrative of Layla’s story. She decides she’s not going to conform to her father and that’s one [thing]. The other is that she has to get the food. I think you’re asking specifically about what the other wife is telling her. I think I just wanted to show her need for attention and how much it’s going to be hard for her to get attention. I think I wanted to show that she’s also stuck in a situation. My whole thing was about people who are stuck in a situation because of circumstances and that they are trying their best to be the best people they can be, and it’s sometimes impossible. The mother is that way, and the father is that way, and she’s that way, too. No one is an antagonist in this film. I wanted to show that.

You say something very interesting about the father. He’s also trying to be responsive to the customs.

I don’t think he’s ever a villain. I think he’s stuck, like everyone else. I think he sees himself as a very good family man. In the beginning of the film, he’s a good husband and a good father. For him, it’s very important how he positions himself as a good family man. It’s all been stripped away from him. He’s fighting to keep these things and he has no choice. I think he gets so mad at his wife because it means that he won’t be the [good] family man anymore.

There is an undercurrent…a sense of danger in the film. We know the mother knows something, but it doesn’t get spelled out quickly. How did you maintain that unease?

I think the whole film is built that way. The whole film is not spelling and not telling. It’s all under the surface, but you sense it more in the beginning because you need to collect information until you have enough information to understand the film. I think in the beginning you just feel it more.

How did you find your amazing cast, specifically your lead Lamis Ammar?

I searched for them for a very long time. I saw many, many Laylas and Jalilas. Jalila -Ruba Blal-Asfour- was the first actress that I saw. I saw a lot of people after her, and the more I saw, I realized she has to be it. She was the best choice. With Layla, when I got to Lamis I realized she’s just so special, so amazing. We had a lot of auditions because we had to work together to figure out how we were going to fit her into this movie. Because the script wasn’t exactly her. We had to rearrange the script a little to have her fit into this, which I did because I couldn’t let her go. She had to be in my film.

What was the thing that made you realize it had to be her?

It started with my casting director who just would not let go. Then when she was so persistent, I said OK and drove to her house in Haifa. We sat for 2 hours together and talked about everything. There was still no audition. She said, “I feel like I’m acting too much.” I said, “Okay, so let’s see how you can not act and bring something from the inside.” Then we changed our approach to scenes completely. We finally acted scenes not in the way I wrote them, which changed the vibe of her character. That made me go back to the script and [make changes]. We had, I think, maybe 5 more auditions after that. In the end we [made up] our minds.

You use strong symbolisms in the movie. There is a scene when Layla is going through a tunnel. And then in the end, she looks like she’s trapped behind a fence.

There are some moments [in the film] when the girls are looking outside the house because of the big lights coming. I do use that at times as something symbolic. [The tunnel] is actually based on my true story. I was going to visit a Bedouin in a village. I went through the middle part of the tunnel and my car got stuck in the middle part. I couldn’t get out. I felt that was so symbolic in that moment, that I wrote that into the film. I was in a specific emotional moment at that time and [the incident] was completely in tune with my emotions. When I got back to writing my script, I said, “We have to put that in.”

I don’t necessarily feel this way, but I’ve been hearing a lot of comparisons between Sand Storm and the Oscar-nominated film Mustang here. What do you make of these comparisons?

Yes, of course. I saw [that] myself, too. I think there are some themes that are similar. But I think the films are different and [live in] different worlds.

There’s an emergence of international female voices telling these types of stories about patriarchy. Why do you think there is a surge all of a sudden?

I’ve been working on [my film] for 10 years, so for me it has just now come together. I think I can only answer about my feelings. The Bedouins are now opening up to modern society and they’re going through this change. These girls are going to university and they’re seeing the world. Then they’re going back to the villages and they’re still being told, “Okay, so you opened up, but you still have to live by the traditional rules that you grew up with.” Now they have this new debate they didn’t have before. My film is relevant now, but I can’t answer for other films.

Do you feel supported as a female filmmaker in your country?

I felt very supported, but this is my personal [experience]. I think lately there’s been a wave of new women filmmakers. Five years ago it was a little bit different. There were hardly any. There were a few pioneers making films, and now maybe a third of films are being made by women. A third is not what it should be. It should be half. But a third is a lot more than what it was before. It’s more than many places in the world, so I think that’s amazing. I really hope it continues in that direction. To tell you why it’s happening; I think that there’s a lot of awareness about the subject. I hope that [these films and filmmakers] are successful. There are some amazing talents and amazing voices. We’re getting a lot of recognition in the world and in Israel. I hope more and more films [like this] get made.

How did you end up getting the film financed? In the U.S., women’s stories are somehow considered risky for box office.

The good thing about Israel is that we make art and films are being judged according to their quality. We submit the films to film funds and then they choose the films that they want to give money to according to the scripts that they thought was written best or that they connected to most. They [don’t necessarily judge the scripts] on their box office potential.

Would you be interested in working in the US if the opportunity arises, or do you want to continue making films in Israel?

I would definitely want to keep making films in Israel because I think there’s no place like home for creating stories that I know. But I’m open to any possibility.

What are you going to work on next?

I only finished the film 2 weeks ago. I do have two new projects that I’m working on, but I’m not ready to talk about them properly yet. What I can tell you is they’re both centered around women. One is a TV show and the other is a film. The film is definitely in Israel. The TV show can be [flexible].

Have you had the chance to check out any films while you were in Sundance?

No, none. But I’m staying until Sunday, so I have four days to try to catch at least a few.

Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.