“Do you ever open your eyes to what’s around you?”
Written and directed by Elite Zexter, the Israeli drama Sand Storm (2016) focuses on the tension between the members of a Bedouin family, whose peace is threatened first by the arrival of Suliman’s (Hitham Omari) second wife, then by his daughter’s, Layla’s (Lamis Ammar), secret relationship with an outsider.
The film serves as a reverent display of tribal life in Southern Israel. Long camera takes present domesticity, focusing on the women’s chores with a distinct lack of haste. And while this certainly helps us adjust to the film’s unique pacing, its undaunted lack of action can prove tedious at times.
In the background, the screen crackles with the consternation of the first wife, Jalila (Ruba Blal), and her resolve to endure the pain, which stems both from her affection for her husband, and his far more generous treatment of his younger wife. But as her frustration overflows, it’s poured into her relationship with Layla, turning Jalila into a prohibitive and controlling entity that’s hard to stomach.
Sand Storm‘s setting is so stripped back, with its stretches of sandy terrain and poverty-stricken interiors, that the bulk of our expectations rests on the acting, and the complex connections the characters etch with the rather repetitive dialogue. Thankfully, despite the heavy silence they are tasked with molding into an expression of their characters’ emotional states, the actors command the screen with remarkable ease.
The film is quite transparent in its focus on women. It dissects the animosity three different generations experience because of the way they’re domineered by a lack of rights, from having no property of their own, to being unable to govern their own lives.
Psychotherapist Virginia Satir once stated that the family is the “factory” where people are made. It requires each of us to take on a particular role. But while these adopted, and often imposed, roles can allow the family to function, they can equally overwhelm each individual’s ability to be his or her “authentic self”. Sand Storm offers a glimpse into the more detrimental effects of rigid role-setting.
The helplessness with which the women accept the limitations of their world is meant to leave a lasting impression, which indeed it does. However, it’s not the only reflection we’re left ruminating over. That’s because there seems to be a great deal of subliminal messaging in Sand Storm. One of the most jarring elements appears to be the imbalance of wealth, which Jalila and Alakel (Shaden Kanboura), the second wife, have access to.
The difference is so stark that, eventually, Layla is forced to plead for food in order to curb her younger sisters’ growing hunger. Upon stepping inside Alakel’s house, where her father Suliman has taken up permanent residence, Layla is shocked to find western-style furniture and an abundance of light, so at odds with the bare, shadow-leaden home she’s bound to.
This unfair treatment of the two wives appears to go against the rules of polygamy in Islam. As Mohammad Hossein Hashemian notes, a Muslim man can have one to four permanent wives, each of whom is entitled to a series of rights: Mahriyah (dowry), the socially sanctioned mating agreement that compels the husband to spend an equal number of nights with each wife, and Nafaqah (the financial support a husband must provide for his wife).
The Quaran commands men to render justice through observing marital rights, which in turn provide the women with security. In fact, the man is only allowed to marry as many women as he can safely provide for. It’s intriguing, then, that Sand Storm shows polygamy in such an unfavorable light.
One reason could be the film’s production. But as the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs states, Islam is the second biggest religion in Israel after Judaism, with Muslims making up about 16.9% of the population, thereby constituting the country’s largest minority. So it’s hard to imagine that Zexter had meant to weave harmful impressions into the script.
It’s more likely that the focus of the story lies in all the elements that serve to toughen, then crush, the film’s leading women, forcing a subtle exaggeration of circumstances to occur.
All in all, thanks to its austere realism, Sand Storm manages to touch on various depictions of love, from an all-consuming infatuation to a time-worn familiarity. The film reaps tragedy from that very same source, circling the pitfalls of devotion. However, Sand Storm‘s monotonous dialogue and sedated pacing do little to stir the same excitement as the trailer.