Writer-director Elite Zexer and lead actress Lamis Ammar talk about preparing for the film, how Zexer prioritized performance when shooting the film, and the knockout ending.
Israeli writer-director Elite Zexer’s Sand Storm, a smart and sensitive film about Bedouin women learning to live within the patriarchy, won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It chronicles how the relationship between a mother, Jalil, and her daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar) shifts when Layla brings home a boy from a different tribe, whom she intends to marry. At the festival, I talked with Elite Zexer and lead actress Lamis Ammar about preparing for the film, how Zexer prioritized performance when shooting the film, and the knockout ending.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you choose to start the film? The first scene is the driving lesson with her father and it’s not until later that we get to see the restrictive rules that her father is imposing on her.
Elite Zexer: I wanted to start the scene with how the relationship between Layla and her father is before everything starts. It’s a very loving relationship, and he’s open to a lot of things that not all dads are open to. They really love each other. She thinks he’s a really great dad. The family triangle starts with Layla really being on her dad’s side, and they both have this bond against her mother. That’s the start of the relationship in the beginning of the film, and that alters as the film continues.Even though we were very precise, and I knew exactly what I wanted before, I came on set, and I forgot everything and rebuilt it there. Click To Tweet
7R: How did you approach framing the film?
Elite Zexer: Me and the DoP [Director of Photography], the way we worked was we had a very clear shooting plan — we knew exactly what we were going to do — for what we wanted to do. And then we came on set.
Most of the cast were non-actors or it was their first film, or the father was a photographer from Al Jazeera. I wanted to give them the chance to do the scene, all the time, from beginning to end, because it really helped them. If ever I asked them to start from here and end two thirds of the way, they couldn’t get the right energy all of the time.I didn’t cut unless I had to cut. In a regular film, there’s 1200 cuts on average. In my film, there’s 360 cuts.Click To Tweet
So what we actually did in each scene is we’d have fifteen shots planned, and instead of that, I’d say, “Start,” and we’d run through the whole scene. My DoP just ran through the whole shots with them, and we did only the two sides sometimes. Or instead of twenty shots, we’d do four shots. Every time we got to a scene, we did a rehearsal on set, even though we’d rehearsed it before, and then we found the scene again on location. We found the shooting again on location. We shot it as we ran with it, the whole scene, all the time.We did a rehearsal on set, though we’d rehearsed before. We found the scene again on location.Click To Tweet
When I edited it, I did the same thing. I tried to give as much space as I can for the drama to happen. I didn’t cut unless I had to cut. In a regular film, there’s 1200 cuts on average. In my film, there’s 360 cuts. Because the whole thing was about letting it happen as much as we can. This was something that was mostly built on set. Even though we were very precise, and I knew exactly what I wanted before, I came on set, and I forgot everything and rebuilt it there.
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7R: What did the rehearsal process involve?
Lamis Ammar: We started to meet the Bedouin before [filming]. We went to the villages, and we stayed with a woman there to see what they do in their daily lives, how they talk, their accent, and how they treat each other. After that, we started rehearsals, with also rehearsals for the Bedouin accent. I knew Arabic before, but the Bedouin accent is a little different. There’s also different words sometimes. So we had to learn that accent for something like three months.
Elite Zexer: We rehearsed every scene. There’s not one scene we didn’t rehearse. We had a few hours for every scene. Every rehearsal we started with saying, what is this scene about? It’s not me telling them, but me asking. They would say, “Where is this coming from? What am I thinking in this moment? What do I want? Where is this going?” We didn’t talk about the dialogue. We talked about internal conflicts and what do they want, what were they doing before, and what’s actually happening in the scene on the inside. Then, we’d start rehearsing to figure out what’s underneath every sentence. On set, we reopened everything and built it again.
7R: Can you talk a bit about the ending? You really get to see Layla making a decision. There’s really a lot of imagery that helps with that. When she’s going to go see her boyfriend, there’s this tunnel that she goes under where she stops and thinks. When she goes to see her father, you feel like she’s very precise and knows what she’s walking into.
Lamis Ammar: She was walking on a road. This road ended somehow, and she needed to choose where to go.
Elite Zexer: She could not leave her mother. She could not do that to her sisters. Ultimately, she grew up with family as the first value. She can’t leave her family. She realizes that she’s leaving them behind in a very, very difficult situation if she walks. And she’s not that selfish. It’s all of that together. She had two bad choices. If she’s going to go with her boyfriend, she would lead a very different life than she imagined.
In the beginning, her mother asks her, “What do you want? Do you want to leave?” She says, “No.” Her mother says, “Well, what do you want?” She says, “I love him.” That’s not an answer. She doesn’t have the answer. She thought her dad was going to help her, that it was going to work out. She’s going to have the boyfriend and the family. She always thought that.
But in the moment that it came to running, in the spur of the moment, yes, she took her bag and started running. But when she saw her mother, and she saw her sister, and she realized she’s going to leave them, and they’re going to be hurt by it. It came to that moment when she knew she’s leaving, and she’s leaving them behind. She’s never going to see them again. She just couldn’t go through with it. She never really meant to leave. She really hoped in all her heart that it was going to work out, that she was going to get everything.
I want her to be able to do that step and go with her boyfriend. But it’s also something where you know you’re leaving people behind. It’s not like you’re taking the power and going, and you’re breaking the rules, and it’s good for you. But you’re also hurting the future of her sisters and the reputation of her family. You’re leaving it all behind. They’re going to be hurt by your actions. And you need to think of other people in your life, too.Her father told her, 'Grow up.' And she grew up, but not in the way that he wanted.Click To Tweet
She grew up. In those five minutes, she just grew up. Her father told her, “Grow up.” And she grew up, but not in the way that he wanted. She grew up in the way that she came back and told him, “I did. But you had it wrong. Now go fix your ways.”
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7R: By the end, it seems like Layla and Jalil are the only ones making conscious decisions and her father is the one that’s trapped.
Elite Zexer: Jalil and Layla are both in the situation where traditional rules are surrounding them, and they both are trying to see how they’re going to work through the ways within the traditional society. They both have different ways of struggling with the new reality of their lives. As the film continues, they switch roles.
I felt that in the beginning her mother was making a more conscious decision, because she had just been through the fact that she had thought her husband would never take a second wife. But he just took a second wife, because he had to. She told her daughter, “What do you think? Your father is going to stand up for you? He did not stand up for me.” She comes from that place of something who’s more conscious of reality. As Layla is becoming more conscious, her mother is like, “Just do what you want, because I don’t want you to be conscious. I want you to have your life.” That’s why I feel like they’re switching roles.