A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Sand Storm is an Arab language, English-subtitled Israeli film that deals with the second-class status of women born to a traditional Arab culture. Polygamy, misogyny, and institutional oppression of women are examined in this tense depiction of the ways in which even men in such cultures are trapped by fear of ostracism and shame. The film illustrates how the need for family bonds can sometimes outweigh a longing for freedom and independence. English subtitles include the words "bastard" and "hell." A girl tells her boyfriend that if they run away together, her father will cut her head off. A mother slaps her daughter for having a boyfriend.
What's the story?
The setting of SAND STORM is a traditional Bedouin village in Israeli territory. College student Layla (Lamis Ammar), her head covered in the modesty scarf dictated by Islam, is being taught to drive a car by her seemingly open-minded father Sulinam (Hitham Omari). But acceptance of women's freedoms in this culture is limited, and when the bright and strong-willed Layla reveals that she's in love with a student at her university, the social machine dedicated to keeping women in their place rolls into action. Sulinam, fearing humiliation and backlash from other village men, arranges a marriage with a local immediately, and it's clear that this is a decision Layla will be forced to accept. Her mother, Jalila (Ruba Blal), is also bright and powerful to the degree that such female power is permitted in the village. She has played by the rules and submitted to the customary social oppression all her life, yet is now being punished for that acquiescence as her husband takes a younger second wife. Adding injury to insult, he has built the new woman a nicer house next door and left Jalila to care for their four daughters. Perhaps that is the final humiliation for her. Layla doesn't at first understand that her mother's objection to Layla's boyfriend is less out of personal disapproval than out of fear for Layla's fate at the hands of the village's horrified men. Both Layla and Jalila chafe at the anti-female oppression embedded in the only society they know. Still, out of loyalty to one another they both decide to submit without protest. The movie suggests that the next oldest sister will do no better in escaping repression.
Is it any good?
This film soars as a dramatic achievement, pulled along by the mesmerizing performances of Ammar as Layla and Blal as her mother. Director Elite Zexer mines their emotion-filled faces in long, silent takes, allowing their depth and honesty as actors to provide a subtext that no amount of brilliant dialogue could rival. Omari's Sulinam is a hollow-eyed father and husband also in conflict about his socially bestowed rights as a man and his love for his wife and daughters.
Sand Storm feels ancient and modern at the same time, because conflicts between loyalty to loved ones and allegiance to ideas have existed since humans started living in groups. Characters talk on cutting-edge cell phones, but women cook over fires on the floor. When the generator outside breaks, the lights go out and the milk goes bad. The movie beautifully describes the way everyone here is both trapped and comforted by social and religious imperatives. The movie posits that everyone always has a choice, but theory is powerless in the face of more practical facts: Sometimes options are so painful that the notion of choice disappears. The movie was a World Cinema prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival and was funded and/or sponsored in part by the Israel Film Council.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how difficult it would be to decide between leaving behind loved ones and giving up one's freedom. Do you think Layla made the best decision for herself in Sand Storm? Why or why not?
Islam has nearly two billion worldwide followers, so it seems reasonable to guess that the religion contains great diversity, yet it's often portrayed in American media as singularly promoting and revolving around hatred and terrorism. This Israeli movie shows a peaceful, ordinary family dealing with difficult problems. How do you think movies depicting negative stereotypes of Muslims are influencing American and international views of this huge group?
When Layla's mother first learns that Layla has a boyfriend, she forbids the relationship, and it seems as if the mother doesn't want Layla to have freedom to make her own choices. Later, it seems as if the mother was only trying to protect Layla from her father's anger and the community's backlash. How do you think the mother felt about independence and freedom for women? Why?
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