Sundance 2016: Sand Storm, by David Bax
At first, it’s difficult for someone like me, a white, First World, middle class male, to find an entry point into Elite Zexer’s Sand Storm. The modern day Bedouin villagers live a life that is almost wholly foreign to me. And, despite my liberal urges not to judge them, many of their practices are difficult to stomach (the idea that a man can “banish” his wife would be hilariously medieval were it not accurate). As things progress, though, it begins to seem that such anger is partially what Zexer aims to provoke. And, from there, the empathy follows.
Layla (Lamis Ammar) is the eldest daughter of mother Jalila (Ruba Blal) and father Suliman (Hitham Omari), whose marriage to a second wife (we’re talking polygamy, not remarriage) kicks off the film. Layla starts off as something of a daddy’s girl. He allows her to go to school, teaches her to drive and, Omari shows us with his measured performance, looks on her with love. When Layla falls in love with a boy from her class, a boy from another tribe, she is sure that Suliman will be reasoned with and allow her to buck tradition. Things go differently than she expects and, along with the presence of this second wife, Layla begins to find she has far more in common with her taskmaster mother than she’s ever imagined.
As Suliman digs his heels in more and more, tearing his family apart, he constantly returns to the refrain that he “has to” react this way. He doesn’t “have a choice” in his actions. To the credit of both Jalila and Layla, the women call him on it. Similarly, Zexer is calling out the men who unquestioningly perpetuate this oppressive way of life.
Still, Zexer’s focus remains on the women. As Layla butts heads with her mother and both butt heads with the new wife, we see how this patriarchal system pits women against one another because they lack the agency to combat their real enemies. Zexer lets these animosities play out in the form of domestic tasks like procuring and cooking food, at one point even turning laundry into a stark metaphor when the shirts and dresses hung to dry become a literal barrier.
Zexer finds some hope in the way that these small freedoms, like school and driving, can provide the building blocks upon which women may escape such a life. But, she reminds us, escape means leaving behind your family. That inextricability is how these awful systems remain intact.