Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 10, 2016 6:15 am 
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Depicting "the Other" with an air of authenticity

Sand Storm, a film about bedouin people living in the Negev desert, shows women in a family struggling against traditional male dominance, in this case of head of the family Suliman (Hitham Omari. His wife Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) is extremely displeased when he chooses, as he is still permitted by custom, to marry another, younger, woman (Shaden Kanboura). At the same time their daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) turns out to want to marry Suleiman (Jalal Masarwa), a handsome young man she has met on her own, at school. This is a hybrid culture, it seems, and having been allowed to go to school (as well as carry a cell phone and take driving lessons), Layla has developed independent ideas. Her mother is the first to be outraged. But later, she sides with her daughter when her husband announces he will marry her off to a man of his choosing, someone his wife doesn't approve of. She condemns him as ineffectual and of poor judgment; and for this she is "banished," sent away from home to another location and separated from her children.

Sand Storm is shot in vérité style using authentic locations and local people. It is so minimal in manner, beginning in medias res, moving rapidly from scene without ceremony, Todd McCarthy of Hollywood Reporter complained he was never told where this was, who these people were, even what language they speak. Israeli viewers probably would know these things, and responsible viewers might apprise themselves of them before watching the film. And Sand Storm is deft and economical in its storytelling and efficient in making its points.

Before this first feature, the filmmaker has done several short films, at least one of which shows her working already with bedouin people in the Negev. So she is not a stark interloper. And there is little doubt of the sincerity of her intentions. However, she is Jewish and an Israeli. As a Palestinian wrote about the film in Haaretz, there is something patronizing in choosing to "speak in the name of the Other." One can't help pondering the fact that this film has won a raft of Israeli Ophir awards and been chosen to represent the country in Best Foreign Oscar competition, when it is a film about Arabs made by an Israeli that depicts them at their most backward and misogynistic.

One also can't help comparing Sand Storm, with its bare-bones style and rough hand-held camerawork, to Rama Burshtein's 2012 very polished Israeli film Fill the Void, which is all about the vicissitudes surrounding an ultra orthodox Jewish wedding. Arguably ultra orthodox customs surrounding woman are just as backward and misogynistic, in their own ways, as the bedouin of the Negev. (A big difference is that Fill the Void shows male society as making collective decisions, whereas the middle-aged patriarch of Sand Storm, Suleiman, who seems partly just as mediocre to us as he is in the eyes of his first wife, is acting on his own, not that this is necessarily a real difference between the two societies.)

In Sand Storm everything is crude and primitive. The look of things id modern, but there is no outside electricity or running water. Instead of the beauty of traditional primitive life, of robes and tents, the surroundings are simply harsh and ugly. There is no elegance or beauty about the look of the film. Not so with Fill the Void, a soft, glossy, pretty-pretty film, which comes off as a sort of visual commercial for ultra orthodox life. And it makes conscious reference to Jane Austen. The bedouin in Sand Storm are allowed no such genteel literary antecedents (though Arab culture, both urban and desert, has a rich literary tradition behind it that westerners know nothing about). Fill the Void was included in the Main Slate of the 2012 New York Film Festival. But I was impressed that when the independent minded Mike D'Angelo saw it at Cannes he rated it very low and summed it up as "Like watching a film about freed slaves who opt to remain on the plantation for the good of the white family." Sand Storm is also a dubious artifact, an ethnographic drama about Arabs made by an Israeli woman, and celebrated by Israeli Jewish viewers. In search of the exotic, they have embraced also something that supports their stereotypes.

Though the language of the film is Arabic, its original title, Sufat Chol, is Hebrew.

Sand Storm/Sufat Chol, 87 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2016, winning the World Cinema Dramatic award (as well as many Israeli film awards); showing at 11 other international festivals, opening theatrically in Israel 15 Sept. 2016 and the US (NYC, Film Forum) 28 Sept.

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