Elite Zexer’s directorial debut, the breathtaking, female-driven Sand Storm (2016), premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2016 just two weeks after her final edits. Zexer's work paid off when Sand Storm took home Sundance's World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. Set in southern Israel, Sand Storm is as much a coming-of-age story as it is an exploration of the developing relationship between Bedouin mother and daughter, a seemingly opposite pair. As the film opens, Jalila is hosting a celebration for her husband's marriage to a second, much younger bride, and she has just discovered her daughter Layla's forbidden love for a young man.
Director Elite Zexer and actor Lamis Ammar, who plays the daughter, Layla, kicked off Sundance 2016 by talking with ScreenPrism at the Park City Museum’s Living Room.
Writer/Director Elite Zexer at the Sundance Film Festival 2016
SP: You’ve worked on the script for over 10 years. What’s the most significant thing that changed to the story during that decade?
EZ: My understanding of their way of thinking, of their traditions. Everything has changed. It started out [titled] Almost Twelve. I shot a short film to see if I could do this. It was called Tasnim, and it’s about a twelve-year-old, and her sister is getting married and it was all through her eyes. I realized [the sisters, Tasnim and Layla] can’t both be heroes, because the mom [Jalila] is [also] a hero. Then I had a script where Layla and Jalilia had different chapters. And then I realized this is was too hard, and I restarted from scratch. Until I got to this version, I took out characters, added characters, someone said something, where they come from, “I have to get that in,” “that’s not right,” and I would completely change it – either a line or a story – until I felt that it was right.
SP: Is Tasnim from your short the same Tasnim that is in Sand Storm?
LA: The little sister? Yes.
EZ: Tasnim is the same character in [both the short and] the film. The girl who plays her is actually the younger sister of the girl who played her in the short. Five years later.
SP: Lamis, how was it working with Ruba Blal (Jalila)? The evolution of your relationship with her in the film felt very real.
LA: It was at first weird for me. I didn’t know her before, and there wasn’t that much good communication. Then we started to work together, and I realized that she is a great woman and a very good actress, and I learned a lot from her. The work between us was very harmonic. I asked her things and she asked me also, [so our relationship was reciprocal].
EZ: We rehearsed every single scene a few hours before filming. What we did was have a discussion. We always started by asking, “What is this? Where are you coming from? What do you think?” The three of us [were] like a democracy: we decided together whatever we’re doing. It was open communication, and we could be ourselves because we could discuss everything.
LA: The relationship between Layla and the mother is very similar [to] my relationship to my mother. So it was very interesting to see another point of view and to respect her with time — both Jalila and my own mother.
Actress Lamis Ammar at the Sundance Film Festival 2016
SP: Lamis, what attracted you to the role of Layla? Elite, how long did it take to cast Layla?
EZ: I cast this for over a year.
LA: Layla is a very intelligent character. She studies at university, [which] wasn’t that acceptable. She was the next generation. I saw the next generation in her. At first, I didn’t understand the relationship between her and her boyfriend, but then I understood [that] through him, she could be in another place and another way of thinking and life. She is trying to break the walls between her and her community; this is what lots of teenagers in the Arab community [do] in modern society. I very much liked her relationship with her and her father. He was very open-minded. He let her drive and he was very nice to her, but when [life turned real], he wasn’t really there [for her]. So everything changed there. And she is learning more and more through all the situations she has.
SP: Suliman, the father, is such an interesting character. The films opens with his great relationship with his daughter, but as we learn more about him, we discover he’s never done anything in life because he wants to. Every action, for him, is an act of responsibility. Was he supposed to be likable?
EZ: I like him all the time. I think the story is about people who are caught in circumstances. They’re trying to do their best to do the best thing, and be the best person they can, even though the circumstances dictate the way they behave. The father sees himself as a good family man, a good father, but it’s all being taken away from him. That good husband role, the good father role – everything is falling apart, and he’s falling apart. He doesn’t have control so he’s frustrated and doesn’t want any of that. If he could have it any other way he could, but he can’t.
ScreenPrism: Can you clarify Layla’s relationship with her boyfriend? Did she get pregnant, or was the scandal purely because she had a relationship?
Elite Zexer: When I said “affair,” I didn’t mean an actual affair. She never touched him. Just the intimacy of talking with him was scandalous. She’s not allowed to talk to other men, if they’re not in her family.
Lamis Ammar: Why, did I look pregnant in the film? [Laughs] [In one scene], when a man crosses the street to talk to her family, [Layla’s] head was down, to avoid looking into their eyes. It’s rude to look at other men.
SP: Let’s talk about Layla’s agency at the end of the film. Even though she gives in to her father’s order to marry someone in the village, to save her and her family’s reputation, she makes a very conscious choice. She doesn’t play the damsel in distress, and she refuses to be forced into this decision.
LA: I did have a choice, but for Layla, family is in the first place. When she realizes that her father and mother try to do the best for her, [even though] it’s not the way she wants, because of the situation, [she chooses to marry].
EZ: I think she has two bad choices. It is her choice, but she has to make the choice whether she wants to lose that [freedom to love] or lose that [her family]. At the end, she can’t lose her family.
LA: She knows that she has [the power of] choice. Maybe another woman in [this] society doesn’t choose this powerful choice and pick her family.
EZ: I don’t think you chose what your father wanted you to do. It was on your terms.
LA: She showed him that there are choices. She made a choice. He got the message.
SP: Elite, what was your overall vision for the film?
EZ: One of the strongest things I wanted to do was make [the film’s themes] universal: father-daughter, mother-daughter, disintegration of family, the father taking on a younger wife, choosing between love and family. All the things here, everyone can relate to, [Beduoin or not]. Even in modern society, the rules aren’t so different, just different circumstances. It’s harder obviously for Bedouins, and the consequences are harsher, but it’s universal. You can see, I’m in every frame of the movie.
SP: I’ll close by asking you what scene was your favorite to shoot and to watch?
EZ: Wow. So many. I can tell you her least favorite scene to shoot: crying, in the tunnel.
LA: Yes, it was the most challenging. It really influenced me a lot – I was crying sometimes even when the cameras weren’t rolling. To think about the things that the character went through was the hardest thing.
EZ: My favorite one was the scene where she and her mother do laundry at night. It was the third day of the shoot. It was beautiful – just the light was on in the laundry room. The whole crew was watching the monitor, and I felt around me that everyone was holding their breath. They said it looked like a painting. [It was then] everyone realized how this film was going to look, and something about that scene changed the whole atmosphere of the film from that day.
LA: The first day of the film was good.
SP: When you and Suliman are driving home?
LA: Yes. I was so happy. It was very nice to be in the car all day, and I was singing and doing voices and [the crew] were hearing everything, and they were so annoyed. [Laughs] But I was so happy.