Get Swept Up in 'Sand Storm'

Sand Storm (Sufat Chol)
(Israel, 87 min.)
Written and directed by Elite Zexer
Starring: Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal, Hitham Omari, Khadija Al Akel
Courtesy of TIFF
Get swept up in Sand Storm. This efficient whirlwind of a film from Elite Zexer is sparse and powerful. It’s Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year and it could go all the way if the folks on the nomination committee dig Toni Erdmann as little as the Cannes jury did. There’s nothing to fault in this small film with a mighty heart as Zexer creates a delicately heartfelt story about a mothers and daughters.

One tempest brews after another in Sand Storm beginning with the uneasy celebration that sets the events in motion. Jalila (Ruba Blala), a middle-aged woman living with her four children in a small Bedouin village, faces the awkward duty of hosting a wedding—for her husband to his new and much younger wife. Jalila barely veils the contempt and shame that simmers within her soul. However, she boils over with anger when she discovers that her 18-year-old daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar), is secretly dating a boy from a different tribe. The affair is of Romeo and Juliet level proportions, which the stiflingly repressive traditions of their community render doubly forbidden.

Zexer unfurls a fable with expert ease as the troubles that Jalila and Layla face speak to the subjection of women in some conservative and traditional societies. The quality of life that Layla’s father, Suliman (Hitham Omari), enjoys with his new wife (Khadija Al Akel) is an awful contrast of luxury versus squalor as the newlyweds reside in a fresh home with marble tiles and contemporary fixtures that leave Jalila dumbstruck when she first steps inside the house. Jalila and the kids, on the other hand, survive in a meagre, outdated, dirty, and ill-equipped home. With the juxtaposition of mise-en-scene in these two settings, Sand Storm offers a glimpse at a world that fails to value women. It’s a fine portrait of social realism imbued with tragedy and urgency.

However, Sand Storm offers two formidable women with Ammar and Blala. Both actors give honest and complex performances as the daughter and mother set at odds by the compressions of their society. As Layla, Ammar is honest and resilient. This young woman brims with hope, intelligence, and ambition: she could be a leader if the world gave her a chance. Blala, similarly, gives a heartfelt and passionate performance as the mother who aches to protect her daughter from the unfortunate future that is her fate. By constricting and releasing the bond between Layla and Jalila, Sand Storm binds the viewer into a delicate emotional relationship with the mother and daughter. The film is liberating when the mother and daughter find peace in the eye of the storm, but when the only means to reconciliation see the winds of tradition keep their course, Sand Storm comes to a quietly devastating close.

Sand Storm is now playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.