Aspen Film Academy Screenings: ‘Sand Storm’ writer-director Elite Zexer on making her Bedouin family drama |

Aspen Film Academy Screenings: ‘Sand Storm’ writer-director Elite Zexer on making her Bedouin family drama

Lamis Ammar and Jalal Masarwa in "Sand Storm." The Israeli film plays on Tuesday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings in the Wheeler Opera House.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Sand Storm’ at Academy Screenings

When: Tuesday, Dec. 27, 3 p.m.

Where: Wheeler Opera House

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

Elite Zexer, the Israeli writer-director behind the acclaimed “Sand Storm,” was first introduced to the Bedouin community there a decade ago, when her mother — a photographer — brought her along for a shoot in a desert village.

The young filmmaker grew close with many of the women there. On one visit, she recalled, Zexer and her mother escorted a young woman to her wedding to a man she’d never met before. Though she was in love with another man, the marriage had been arranged by her father.

“Minutes before she met him for the first time, she turned to me and said, ‘This will never happen to my daughter,’” Zexter recalled via email. “I looked at her and felt my stomach twitching. That’s the moment I knew that I had to make this movie.”

A similar situation plays out in “Sand Storm,” Zexer’s Bedouin family drama that opens and closes with weddings. Both are bittersweet ceremonies for the women: one arranged for the teenage Layla (Lamis Ammar) against her will; the other is for her father as he takes a second wife. Layla guides viewers through the complicated lives of women in a society that still subjugates them even as modernity encroaches on its traditions.

It’s an ambitious and emotionally complex piece of storytelling. Layla’s father, for instance, has all the markings of a villain — he forces one wife to organize a wedding reception for his marriage to another, he rejects his daughter’s love for a boy from another tribe. And yet, Zexer manages to craft him into a sympathetic character bound by patriarchal tradition.

As an outsider, Zexer proceeded carefully in attempting to tell this story. She spent years getting to know Bedouin women, she studied their language and she tested the waters by making a short film to screen in Bedouin villages in order to get feedback on her portrayal. She shot “Sand Storm” on location in four villages, with a partly Bedouin film crew.

But, of course, she is a storyteller and not an anthropologist. Zexer knew the film’s success would depend on the universal humanity in her story.

“In that sense, it doesn’t matter where I come from,” she said, “because being a daughter, or a mother, or a girlfriend, or part of family dynamics — these are universal topics that happen everywhere to everyone. And these are the focus of the film. And ultimately, I think they are also its biggest strength.”

Lamis Ammar plays Layla in her film debut. Zexer said that she wrote and rewrote the role to suit the talented young actress during an intense audition process, in which Ammar discussed her personal experiences and how they related to the story in “Sand Storm.”

“After months, I discovered the whole role had been adjusted to match her as the leading actress,” she said.

Zexer has been traveling the globe for nearly a year with “Sand Storm,” which won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic section of the Sundance Film Festival in January and was Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Film for the Oscars (though it is not included on the short list for nominations).

After this auspicious debut, Zexer has quickly become an in-demand writer and director. She hasn’t yet committed to a project for her follow-up.

“This year has been absolutely breathtaking, amazing and exciting with everything that happened with ‘Sand Storm,’” she said, later adding: “I do have a few things in development, both in film and TV, but it’s too soon to know exactly where I’m headed next.”