A ‘strong female character’ is an ever-evolving concept. And we see that manifested in Sand Storm, a film directed by Jewish Israeli director Elite Zexer. She offers us what seems to be a conventional strong female character in Layla (Lamis Ammar). She lives the life of a seventeen year old Bedouin girl from the vast Negev desert. Cultural conventions trap her, she’s the kind of character that gets an audience’s sympathy. But Zexer also gives us Layla’s mother Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour). She seems to be upholding the exact same conventions that keep Layla and herself from breaking free.
Sand Storm lets its audience observe who upholds the rules. It also shows us in what capacity those rules are being maintained. And who breaks them, and how much permission the characters get in breaking them. There’s an unintentional tendency to ghettoize world cinema by looking at it through this lens. But nobody ever made a movie anywhere about someone who followed all the rules. Layla’s allowed to drive from school with her father Suliman (Haitham Omari). But Jalila separates father and daughter because men and women aren’t allowed to be together during a Bedouin wedding ceremony, even if it’s for his own second wedding.
The film makes the audience invest on the characters. Layla discovers and tells Suliman that her grades aren’t so great and we eventually find out one possible reason why that is. A few scenes later Jalila answers Layla’s cellphone and discovers that her daughter’s in love with Anwar (Jalal Masarwa) a boy from her school. She disapproves. Layla has perceptions about her parents. But this is the kind of movie that subverts expectations of certain characters. Layla assumes that Jalila is the conservative mother and Suliman the laid back, weak dad. And any good, strong protagonist would play on such a dynamic, as she and Anwar separately plead their cases to Suliman.
The actors convey the changes that their characters go through, their transitions deliberate yet smooth. Suliman talks to or about his daughter differently depending on how smart or marriageable he thinks she is. But it’s Jalila’s transformations and Blal-Afsour’s acting that make the film. When Anwar visits the faraway family, she violently drags him away and tries to convince him to back out on his terrible idea, warning him of the danger that all characters might face if he asks for Layla’s hand in marriage. Blal-Afsour interprets the character with such determination, fighting the power that Suliman has against Jalila, elevating these already high stakes.
Sand Storm opens on September 30th at the Bell Lightbox Theatre in Toronto. Please see it.
- Release Date: 9/30/2016