Interview with Elite Zexer, Sandstorm‘s director

We met Elite Zexer in a parisien Hostel. She was preparing the release of her first feature film : Sandstorm. The story of a young bedouin girl in Isreal torn between love and family traditions.

How did you get the idea of your movie?

It all started with my mum. She is a still photographer and, ten years ago, she started shooting pictures in a bedouin village. She made friends with many people, and especially with the women. She was spending so much time there, if we wanted to see her we had to go with her because she was never at home. We started to go too and spend all of our vacations and week-end there. One of the young ladies asked my mom to take pictures of the weddings. My mother and I went to a lot of different weddings, sometime even twice a week. I met a lot of young women and saw how they got to be married. One of the girls we met was the first of her village to go to the university. She met a young man there and they fell in love. Their love was not allowed. Her family told her she cannot go to university anymore. She has to stay at home and marry the man they choose. She did not know what to do but, eventually, decided she could not hurt her family. The night of her wedding, she was in her new bedroom waiting for her husband she has never met to come. She turned to my mother and me, and said that for her daughters things will be different. That was the time I understood I had to make this movie, ten years ago.

Why did it take ten years to make the movie ?

It took me a long time to say out loud that I wanted to make this movie because when you want to talk about a culture that is not yours you need, first, to write it from the right place, second, to really know what you’re talking about. Otherwise the movie could be judgemental. I thought it was better to make a test, first. So I made a short movie. The idea was to know how the bedouin would react. When I finished my short (Tasnim – 2010), I gave DVDs to many bedouins.  They passed them around. For months they would tell me: “when are you coming again?” It reassured me. Tasnim was very successful and won many prices during International Film Festivals. It was a good test. I could start working on the feature film. It took me five years to write the script. First of all, because it takes time to write a first script but also because I really wanted to capture the bedouins way of thinking. So I would go to the village and sleep there. I would hear different opinions and point of views and go home and write a draft. And then, I would go to another village and spend a week and think “I got it all wrong”. I did this for five years. And finally, I spend another year raising money and casting.

Sandstorm, Elite Zexer, 2017

Did you show the movie to the bedouin girls you met ?

I did not specifically show to the girls, I showed to all the bedouins I worked with because I wanted to make sure I did not make any mistakes. They were really emotional and say in the end that it is a very good representation of real life. They were proud to be part of it. The movie was screened in a theatre close to the villagers which was completely full, and afterwards, it was three theatres that were completely full for months. Most of the responses were quite positive. “It was like seeing reality through screen”, “When will there be a number two”, “I did not wanted it to end”.  Some of them did not respond well but then there will be other bedouins who would answer them. They would say “here it is not like that”, “Why was there no political stuff in the movie?” But then, another Bedouins would say “he’s right and we should talks about this subject too” and then the debates shift from the movie to real life.

It’s your first feature film. How did you fund the movie? And what was the difference with shooting a short ?

We got two Israeli film fund and two private investors. It is all Israeli money. The process is completely different. It is much harder. It is not like making ten times a short movie. There are so much more depths, layers and more thoughts to every frame. I cannot even compare the two. Writing a short film took me ten days, writing this feature film took me five years.

Do you think Israeli cinema is having a wealthy period?

We’ve been having a sort of a wave since 2001. There was one very successful Israeli movie call Late Marriage (Dover Koshashvili – 2001) and ever since it has been a growing industry. This year has, at least, fifteen films screened in international festival. And they had a lot of fame. The industry in Israel is very successful.

How did you choose the actors?

I could not cast any bedouin actors as the women are very traditional and are not allowed to show pictures of them except to their immediate family. I had to cast Palestinians and teach them about the culture and how to speak because the dialect is different. We looked all over Israel and beyond Israel. We even had some auditions in France. The mother was the first one that I saw but still it took me a long time to see everyone else until I realise she is just the best choice. The daughter, it was her first movie. I found her when she was in third year of acting school. We had a lot of auditions together and I found myself rewriting the script for her.

What did you change in the script ?

In the beginning, the character was very internal. And during the movie, she learns how to speak. But Lammis has so much attitude and knows what she wants: she couldn’t be internal. In the end, I realised I was rewriting just for her so she should be the one. The father is not an actor, he is a photographer. It is his second movie. I saw him in his first movie and find him amazing. Finally, the little sister. We could not find a girl that has the right attitude because we cannot teach a ten year old girl how to act like that. After we looked everywhere, I told my casting director that six years ago I made a short movie with the same kind of character. The girl who acted had a sister who was five and would, currently, have the right age. I did not have her name or address. I just remember that their parents had a store in the middle of Tel Aviv. We found the store. I saw her mother and said “Maybe your little girl wants to audition” And the mother just shouted to the back of the store “Do you want to audition?” and a little voice answered “I don’t care, whatever”. This was it. For Anuar, it was just auditions. The casting director called a lot of young men. She actually knew him as they work on a set together before. He came and he was just right. We were all in love with him the second we saw him.

There is a really strong feminist point of view in your movie. Do you want to continue to write movies with feminist issues ?

I have three ideas for my next movies. Two of them have female leads and one of them do not.  But I think the film is still feminist in a way. I cannot say that it is my goal in life but somehow I guess that is what I found myself related to. I grew up in a house where the mother is very strong and the father is very supportive of it. The way I was brought up is that I can do whatever I want. We did not speak of feminism because we did not need it. We just knew that women can do whatever they want.

What are your next movies going to be ?

They are just ideas for the moment. I have been travelling for Sandstorm for a year. And since Sundance I have been just travelling. I have not unpacked my bag for one year. I had no time to sit at home. So I cannot talk about it