Elite Zexer is an Israeli writer and director. Her debut feature film, Sand Storm (Sufat Chol), is receiving praise at film festivals around the world. The film follows the story of Layla, a young Bedouin woman, and her mother Jalila, as they struggle to navigate modern ideas in a traditional setting. Elite took some time out of her hectic promotional schedule to sit down and chat about what inspired her to make Sand Storm, what she learnt about Bedouin culture while researching the film, and what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated film industry.
How did you come to make this film?
It all started with my mother. She’s a photographer (amongst other things) and ten years ago she started shooting in Bedouin villages, where she became very good friends with the local women. It got to the point that she spent so much time there that if we wanted to see her, we had to join her in the villages. So she dragged the whole family after her!
Many of the young women started asking my mum to photograph their weddings, and I would often go with her. One of the young women we met had gone to university, she was one of the first women in her village to go, and she met a young man there and fell in love. When her family found out they told her that she couldn’t go to university anymore, and that she had to marry someone from her own village – a man they chose for her.
On her wedding night, we were standing in her new bedroom, which she had just walked into for the first time in her life, and she was about to meet her husband for the first time. We could hear the parade of people approaching and the shouts of the men in the village. The sky was filled with fireworks. The young woman turned to us and said, “For my daughter things will be different”.
That was the second I realised that I had to make this movie.
You spent ten years on this film, can you tell me what that process looked like?
It took me a few years to get the courage to say out loud what I already knew in my stomach. Bedouin culture is so far away from my culture, and you can’t just get up one morning and make a feature film about a culture that is that far from your own.
You have to really know the people of the culture and know what you’re doing, so it took me a few years to test myself. After three years of thinking about it, I decided to make a short film called Tasnim.
The film is about a young girl whose father has come back to the village after his second wedding. It’s a coming of age film, and Tasnim ended up being a character in Sand Storm.
Making Tasnim was a test for me. I loved every moment of working in the Bedouin villages and it really felt like something special was happening, so for me it was a test that was passed. It was also a test for the Bedouins, so I gave them the DVD, and they loved it.
They passed it amongst themselves and between villages and for months they kept asking me “when are we going to do another one? When are we going to do a longer one?” So I started writing the feature, which took me four and a half years.
I would go to a village and stay for a few days, hear stories, meet people, share ideas, go home, and write a draft. Then I would go to another village, stay for a few days, hear something different and think “oh my god – I got it so wrong”. So I would go home and write it again. That went on for years before I thought “okay – I think I got it right this time”.
After I finished the script it was normal film making time. I spent a year casting and raising money, then another year shooting and editing.
The film is about Layla trying to bring Bedouin culture together with her modern values, but ultimately Layla remains trapped – much like the girl in real life. Do you see change coming into the communities?
While it was one specific girl who made me feel like I needed to make the film ten years ago, during those years it was fifty other girls. I met many, many women and their stories intertwined to make one script. I have gotten to know a society that is dealing with exactly what the script is showing – it is very traditional, but it is in need of more modern values, and the locals are well aware of their situation.
Both the men and the women openly discuss it. They’re trying to understand how to hold on to everything they love about their tradition while opening up to new ideas that they think it’s important to take on. They’re aware of everything that’s amazing about their culture, and everything that’s problematic.
I found a society that talks about everything very openly and is trying to figure out where to go – those are the people that I’ve been meeting for the past ten years.
I’m sure you get asked this question a lot: what impact, if any, do you feel that being a woman has had on your experience as a writer and director?
I’ve been feeling more and more like a woman filmmaker since I’ve been out promoting this film than when I made it because I’ve been asked this question so many times!
I don’t feel like I was treated as a woman on the set, I feel like I was treated as a director. I can’t imagine shooting this film with a crew who gave more than they gave or who loved more than they loved. We were working under extreme conditions, shooting on real locations, with not enough money and not enough crew, but everybody felt that something special was happening so they just went with it.
They gave it not 100 per cent, but 800 per cent! I don’t know how it is to be a male filmmaker, but if being a woman filmmaker means that I received what I did then I would not choose to be anything else.
As for being asked that question – statistics are not on our side. Women filmmakers aren’t behind half of the films being made, and until they are these questions should be on the table. This subject needs to be raised and solutions need to be found – we should keep talking about it.
What’s your top piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers who might be reading this?
I have two top pieces of advice. One is never doubt that your film will get made –if you believe wholeheartedly that it will happen, then it will.
My second piece of advice is never work alone. There are so many ups and downs in film making and one of those is the challenge of, at some points in the process, being surrounded by possibly hundreds of people, and then at some points you are all alone, and everything falls on your shoulders. So, try not to be alone. Even when you’re writing, find someone who will pick you up mentally and professionally when you fall. Find a producer who believes in and loves the project as much as you do. Only work with people who believe in the project as much as you do, that way you won’t feel like you’re the only person carrying it.
Sand Storm is screening at cinemas across Australia as a part of the Jewish International Film Festival.