Writer-director Elite Zexer constructs a straightforward tale of a ruinous patriarchal order in Sand Storm, but with an insightful variation. Instead of anchoring the injustices brought upon Layla (Lamis Ammar), a Bedouin teen, through the behaviors of sadistic men, Zexer primarily focuses on the relationship between Layla and her mother, Jalila (Ruba Blal). The mother’s hard stare and stern warnings to her daughter initially uphold the arrangements of the household in favor of Layla’s suppression, especially when it comes to seeing Anwar (Jalal Masrwa), a fellow classmate. Zexer establishes Jalila as a woman whose resolve has been slowly leaked from her being, as she now finds herself imposing the same social strictures upon her daughter that previously led to her exile at the hands of Suliman (Hitham Omari), Layla’s father. Zexer weaves an impressively terse narrative of distinctly motivated characters, but the film’s core remains somewhat shapeless due to the routine dramatization, replete with standard-issue handheld camerawork and a nondescript visual palette.
Zexer does, however, display a certain command of mise-en-scène by keeping characters, or portions of them, consistently within the frame together, which gives an immediacy to tête-à-têtes by continually emphasizing people’s close, physical proximity to one another. In one scene, such a spatial configuration is apparent as Jalila confronts Layla about her ability to choose a sexual partner. While folding laundry, Jalila forbids her daughter from seeing Anwar again, and the scene ends with Jalila walking toward Layla and passing off the domestic duties. Not only has she resolutely forbidden Layla’s independence, she’s reinforced her confinement through a domestic chore.
Throughout the film, Zexer’s calm direction communicates these implied dynamics without harping on them through sudden camera moves or cut-ins. A hint of Layla’s bubbling rage is suggestive of much deeper pain, and it’s all that’s needed to articulate Zexer’s view of the complex, top-down oppression within this Bedouin village, so that it’s ultimately women, under patriarchy’s constraints, placing shackles onto one another.
The film’s primary tension is Layla’s relationship with a steadily modernizing Arabic culture, which is communicated through a juxtaposition between Jalila and Ahlam, a well-known Emirati pop singer. As Anwar jams to one of Ahlam’s tracks outside of school, Layla immediately makes sense of the music in relation to her home life, saying: “I don’t think my mom will like her.” The overt dialogue works here because it reveals Layla’s traumatic obsession with approval, order, and the consequences that could result from transgressing it. An equally insightful moment occurs later as Jalila lights a cigarette. When Suliman asks her if she started smoking again, Jalila scoffs at his naïveté: “Are you kidding? It isn’t respectable.” The comment, almost Mizoguchian in its suggestion of an absurd, ironic truth about female oppression, implies that it isn’t respectable for women, whereas men could light up without being second guessed or, at least, would be allowed the space to live with their own choices, regardless of social consequences or health concerns.
These are wonderful blips of feeling and significance, but they’re too few on the whole, especially in Sand Storm’s third act, which charts Suliman’s insistence upon Layla’s arranged marriage to a local man. Carefully arranged interactions are replaced by explicit statements of the divisions between men and women, with Suliman even uttering “I’m not a man?” as Jalila questions his choice of a partner and, by extension, his masculinity. As the men emerge to wreak havoc upon Layla, Zexer flattens the overarching conflict between tradition and modernity to one of gender difference, forsaking a thornier reckoning with the intricacies of Bedouin cultural thought.