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Elite Zexer’s Sundance prize-winning debut focuses on Bedouin women caught in a social storm

Director Elite Zexer talks about Sand Storm, her Sundance prize-winning film where Bedouin women fight tradition.
Sand Storm's film director, Elite Zexer. Getty Images
Sand Storm's film director, Elite Zexer. Getty Images

Israeli writer and director Elite Zexer made a big impact with her debut feature Sand Storm (Sufat Chol) at the Sundance Film Festival, taking home the top Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition.

The film, which will next screen at the Berlin Film Festival this month, tells the story of young Bedouin woman Layla (Palestinian actress Lamis Ammar, also making an impressive debut) and her family, who find themselves grappling with expectations and tradition.

Zexer skilfully draws us into the world of the Bedouin village – complete with the trappings of modern life – where Layla has a strong relationship with her father (Hitham Omari), but a much weaker bond with her mother (Ruba Blal-Asfour).

As the film progresses and a secret comes to light, the balance begins to shift, with the family dynamics put under further strain by the arrival of a second wife.

It is fitting that family was the reason Zexer happened upon the story.

“My mother is a stills photographer,” she says. “She started shooting in Bedouin villages about 10 years ago and became very close friends with many of them.

“She asked me to come and meet them, and I always do what she says, so I said yes and I joined her, and it turned out to be an amazing experience and I also became very close friends with some of them.”

An experience at an arranged wedding provided the spark for the film, which was shot in four Bedouin villages in the Negev desert. As the shifting sands of the relationships start to stir, it becomes clear that the only villain in the film is traditional expectations, with family members trying to navigate the situation as best as they can.

“I don’t believe in villains at all in life,” says Zexer. “We’re all people. In my film, they are all people in specific circumstances who are all trying to do their best to be the best they can within these rules they are stuck with.

“Nobody is good or bad they are just trying to find the best way to deal with what they’ve been given.”

Ammar spent three months learning the Bedouin accent to play Layla, but that was nothing compared with the lengths to which Zexer went to tailor the part to her young star.

“When I first met Lamis I thought she was extraordinary and very special, but so completely wrong for the part,” says Zexer. “Then I went to her house in Haifa and we sat down and we spoke and we thought, ‘what are we going to do’?

“We changed the way I approached the scenes and the way she approached the acting, and we kept on working together. That led to me rewriting the script for her – and that basically means the character was written again with her in mind.

“Our whole process later was that she had to bring something from her life in every sentence that she said. So even if things aren’t as harsh in her life, she still knew where everything was coming from emotionally.”

Although the choices made by the family lie at the heart of the film, there is also commentary on the day-to-day issues faced by Bedouin villagers.

“It was important for me to show how they live,” says Zexer. “I think I’m not speaking directly about the political situation – I’m showing it, in the sense that there’s a village that is five minutes from a highway and there’s Israeli cars passing all the time but they don’t stop to see how these people are living.

“They don’t have electricity and they don’t have water and they don’t have a sewer system. They are supposed to be citizens like everyone else, but they don’t get the same rights.

“I don’t need the people in the film to get up every morning and say, ‘Oh we don’t have electricity again,’ because that’s their reality – but I do show it on screen.”

Her award at Sundance cements Zexer as a talent to watch; perhaps more importantly, she also received the seal of approval from the Bedouin crew who worked with her on the film just before she put the final touches to it last this month.

“I did show it to Bedouins who were on set with me and they laughed throughout the whole film, in a good way,” she says.

“Every reaction was, ‘Oh, that’s such a Bedouin man. Oh, that’s such a Bedouin mother.’ In the end, they said, ‘That was the best comedy ever’.

“That was actually my funniest screening – and if I can only show it to Bedouins from now on, then I’m going to do that.”

artslife@thenational.ae

Updated: February 2, 2016 04:00 AM

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