Film Reviews


By • Oct 25th, 2016 •

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Although the lives of Arab Muslim women often are comparatively restricted and narrow, cinema has been affording views into that relatively hidden world, and SAND STORM is the most recent arrival.

In a marvelously succinct opening, a truck jounces across the desert expanse, with teenage Layla at the wheel, as her father Suliman is teaching her to drive–but as they reach the outskirts of their ramshackle village, they climb over each other to change places.  The scene speaks volumes.  It shows an easy, relaxed relationship, and he is seen as a somewhat indulgent father, but he is quick to conform to public proprieties and traditions within a conservative snoopy environment.

Once home, however, Suliman’s relationship with his wife Jalila is anything but relaxed and affectionate:  Suliman is about to take a second, younger wife.  On top of the insult of her husband’s second marriage, Jalila is also obliged to be hospitable at the wedding party, where the chubby young bride is enthroned, stuffed into an ornate gown resembling a giant cream puff.  Then Suliman decamps with his new wife to his nearby new house, well-stocked and luxurious by comparison, leaving Jalila to return to her own bare, shabby home, down the stack of discarded tires that serves as outdoor steps, where a cell phone is the only concession to the 21st Century.

Stoic, unsmiling Jalila has nothing pleasant in her life, present or future, as she’s trying to manage as best she can with her four daughters, despite her husband’s diminished presence.  She’s facing a life of loneliness and drudgery, losing whatever authority she may have had, and it’s evident that things will only go downhill.

Layla’s life is at a turning point as well.  Like most teenagers, Layla is more focused on her own present and future.  In a situation common to girls across the world, Layla has a boyfriend, met in the course of being allowed to go beyond the confines of the village to continue her schooling, kept secret from her parents.  Here in her insular village, the traditional route would be for an arranged marriage where the bridal couple may not even be acquainted before the ceremony.  Nevertheless, despite her mother’s fury on accidentally discovering the secret, Layla has no intention of giving up her boyfriend; they plan to marry.  She has faith in her version of “having it all”–school, a love match, a break with tribal tradition–and hopes for approval from her more easy-going father, if not her stern mother.

The focus of the film is Arab tradition in an Arab village, but writer-director Elite Zexer is actually Israeli, with a degree in film from Tel Aviv University.  Although this is her feature debut, her award-winning shorts have already garnered international acclaim.  SAND STORM, though fictional, was inspired by the personal stories she heard when accompanying her photographer mother into Muslim villages.

The excellent actors are unfamiliar to American audiences.  This is also the feature debut for
Lamis Ammar as young Layla, energized by her confidence in her own agency, who beautifully portrays both the universality of young adulthood and the particularity of her frustrations relating to her constricted horizons.  Actress Ruba Blal-Asfour as the bitter Jalila is largely limited in alternating between simmering resentment and open anger.  She plays this with grim dignity, maintaining her stern unsmiling demeanor, with one delicate revealing private moment with her husband, with her intimate gesture of reaching for a puff of his cigarette, in a brief moment of embrace that hints at touching memories of happier days.

The main focus of this intimate household drama is, of course, the view of these two women, mother versus daughter, maturity versus youth, tradition versus modernity.  The women may conform outwardly to societal customs but both are strong-minded, out-spoken women, with confidence in their actions and reactions, yet both understand they may be pushing the outside of the envelope, with the possibility of serious censure and punishment.

Suliman is, of course, freer to pursue his social and marital choices.  Still, even Suliman is regarded with a certain even-handed measure of sympathy.  Haitham Omari depicts a surprisingly rounded character, not simply a domineering head of household, perhaps trying to do the right thing, navigating difficult territory, but feeling himself hemmed in by the conformity exacted by his neighbors, worrying that his wife or daughter may bring shame to the family in their flouting of traditional expectations.

As the family tensions mount, and Jalila exhorts her husband to “Be a man for once!” he also feels trapped, saying that he has no choice.  Ultimately, perhaps he’s not the villain.  The villain is embodied in the society itself, binding them all.

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