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Original title: Sufat Chol

D: Elite Zexer / 88m

Cast: Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal-Asfour, Haitham Omari, Khadija Alakel, Jalal Masarwa, Elham Arraf, Shaden Kanboura, May Azliah, Diamond Zaccak

The first feature by Israeli movie maker Elite Zexer, Sand Storm focuses on a Bedouin family whose patriarch, Suliman (Omari), has just married his second wife. His first wife, Jalila (Blal-Asfour), is none too happy about it, but as it’s part of the Bedouin culture and it’s a male-dominated society, she has no choice in the matter. Jalila has given Suliman four daughters, including teenager Layla (Ammar), who is in college. Layla and her father have a somewhat easy-going relationship, while her mother is stricter and less inclined to indulge her daughter’s wayward and more modern behaviour. Suliman’s marriage, combined with Layla’s recent exam results being less than satisfactory, focuses his mind on what he should do about his eldest daughter, and her future. His answer is to marry her to a man she doesn’t know, and whom she has never spoken to. Despite their differences, Jalila defends her daughter’s wish not to marry this man, but as tensions rise and threaten to boil over, it isn’t clear which side will win out: centuries old traditions or modern day aspirations.

Throughout Sand Storm, there’s the palpable sense of a tragedy unfolding, one that will prove life-changing for all concerned. As modern sensibilities clash with established social norms, the struggle that comes with understanding both sides of the argument is highlighted in the character of Suliman. He loves his first daughter, but he is bound by what is expected of him as a father; he may want Layla to be free to live her own life with the man of her choice, but he has no more say in what happens than she does. This element of Bedouin culture, so apparently cruel in its disregard for the feelings of an individual, adds tension and a dark, emotional undercurrent to the material, and as the movie progresses, it proves more gripping than expected. By the time Layla makes the decision to pack her bags and leave for good, Zexer’s tightly constructed and intelligent screenplay ensures that there’s no guarantee that she’ll be successful in her escape. And what the consequences will be of her actions carries an equally palpable sense of dread. Here, love is irrelevant. Here, love is a distant second to the marriage contract. Here, love is likely to be punished.

The tone throughout is one of simmering antipathy allowed an occasional outburst when things prove too much. This applies to all three main characters, with Jalila angry at her husband’s callous choice of husband for Layla (“Did you ever look at your daughter?”), Layla herself challenging her mother and father over their perceived intransigence, and Suliman when his authority is questioned repeatedly. Zexer neatly explores the ties that bind ever more tightly in these circumstances and sidesteps any potential sentimentality by showing that – sadly – there’s no place for it in any of the characters’ lives. The cast are uniformly impressive, their performances rich in detail and hugely affecting, with Blal-Asfour’s portrayal of the downtrodden yet still resilient Jalila commanding the viewer’s attention from the start. Zexer has a good eye for the rhythms of daily family life, and she’s careful to portray traditional Bedouin culture without any overt criticism, making this a respectful piece but one that’s also hopeful of change, even if takes a few more generations to achieve.

Rating: 8/10 – winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Sand Storm has an emotional heft that belies the simplicity of its appearance and its plot; it’s a standard tale to be sure, and seen many times before, but this is a movie that is both humane and surprisingly tender despite its dramatic, and often devastating, exploration of the limits of female empowerment when brought up against the rigid cultural expectations of Bedouin society.

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