Sand Storm, the debut film from Elite Zexer, comes to the United States with a pedigree of sorts. It is the first all-Arabic language film to win Israel’s Ophir Award for Best Picture.1 As all such Ophir-winners are, it was selected as Israel’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. And it’s won awards at the Stockholm, Locarno, Taipei, and Berlin Film Festivals. I suppose I’m mentioning these plaudits so you have a reason to suspect that my expectations were unfairly high.
Jalila is a 40ish-year-old bedouin woman living in the Israeli desert; her husband has seen fit to take a second wife, considerably younger than she. Such are the traditions of Jalila’s tribe, but what really grinds her gears is that the second wife’s house is much better built and stocked than her own. This may contribute her general grouchiness, and fierce strictness with her children. Indeed, she comes across as a humourless harpy.
Or so thinks her daughter, Layla. Layla’s age and inexperience have given her a rebellious spirit. Though her father has chosen a dopey and overweight fellow tribesman for her to marry, her heart belongs to Anwar, a handsome student from her college. She dismisses her mother’s insistence to marry as expected, certain she can talk her father into approving her choice.
I can’t speak for other critics, of course, but when I describe a film as ‘overlong,’ I mean that the runtime could be shortened without blunting the director’s narrative, theme, or technique—and that the film would be better for it. We all know films whose stories overstay their welcome (Meet Joe Black, Transformers 7: Big Robots Fistfight), that repetitively illustrate a theme (Toni Erdmann, Certain Women), or whose style is an annoying affectation (The Fits, From Afar). With Sand Storm, its a minor mixture of the latter two.
There is a shot late in the film, and I will absolutely avoid spoilers, where Layla realises something important about her mother. Once the audience realises that Layla realises, there isn’t any reason for the shot to continue—yet it does, well past its usefulness. Zexer has shots like this all throughout Sand Storm; the result is a movie with a lumbering pace. I like slow films, as Film Misery readers well know (my love of Tsai Ming-Liang and Béla Tarr is the stuff of legend among three or four people), but only if it’s for a purpose. Here, it seems Zexer is just trying to fill her film out to five reels.
There’s a possibility that Zexer wants to say something about Jalila and Layla’s tribal village, how frustratingly slow it is to advance with modern conventions and morality. But I don’t think Zexer effectively communicates this with the slower pace; it’s already pretty apparent just from the narrative, and reads as filler. Many will find that this makes Sand Storm interminable. Others will be fascinated by this window into the bedouin world and this story of the women caught in its web. I’m somewhere in the middle, but leaning towards the notion that Zexer’s style isn’t quite developed enough to make something truly satisfying.