Interview with Israeli film director Elite Zexer
"Sufat Chol" and the Bedouin brides

In her debut feature film "Sufat Chol" (Sand Storm), which was awarded the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Israeli director Elite Zexer tells the story of Bedouin women struggling to change the unchangeable rules, each in her own individual way. Interview by Igal Avidan

You got to know the Bedouins through your mother. How did that come about?

Elite Zexer: My mother opened many doors for me among the Bedouins. They′ve known her for so many years she′s practically treated like family. They extended this love to me, too. In her capacity as a professional photographer, my mother documented life in a Bedouin village for the Bedouin council, shortly before the village was officially recognised by the state. Recognition meant the locals could expect many changes – paved streets, electricity, sewage and new houses. Because my mother was introduced to the community by a local and all the villagers belong to the one family clan, she was accepted immediately. Despite the fact that the infrastructure still had not been built ten years after the settlement was officially recognised, my mother remained friends with many of the locals and numerous other Bedouins. She photographed Bedouins for many years and because I accompanied her occasionally, I also got to know them.

Is your film based on a true story?

Zexer: A few years ago I accompanied my mother to a wedding ceremony in a non-recognised village, which she was documenting. The 19-year-old Bedouin bride had a secret boyfriend at her university. When her family found out about him, they took her mobile phone, locked her in the house and ordered her to marry a man from the village. Because she was so attached to her family, she agreed – after a long internal struggle – to go ahead with the marriage, so as not to hurt them.

I spent the wedding night together with my mother and the would-be bride in her new house, which her husband had built for her. She had yet to see him, because men and women celebrate separately at Bedouin weddings. She was waiting in the bedroom to which her future husband would be led by a male procession. We could hear the approaching procession, the fireworks and men shouting ″mabrouk″′ or ″congratulations″. I looked at her and saw her anxiety because she was still in love with her fellow student.

Suddenly, she looked at me and said, ″When I have a daughter, she won′t have to go through such an experience.″

Has this woman already seen your film?

Zexer: I′ve only showed it to my team and to the Bedouins who worked on it.

You shot in four Bedouin villages. Did you always need to get the permission of a local man?

Zexer: I always approached the men, but each man asked his wife first. If she disapproved, he would refuse to co-operate with me.

How did you find the locations for Sufat Chol?

Zexer: I knew exactly how the houses and courtyards in the film had to look. We checked out a lot of recommended locations where there was strong local support for our film, while explaining what the shoot was about. They co-operated with us so that every detail in the film looked authentic. I specifically didn′t shoot in villages that I had known or with families whose stories are told in the film. We simply filmed in very similar villages.

Did you try to recruit any Bedouin women?

Zexer: I didn′t even try. They′re very conservative. There′s no way you would be allowed to film them; they don’t like the idea of men around the globe being able to watch them act in such scenes. In 2010, I tried to find a Bedouin girl for the short film ″Tasnim″. I was asked by Bedouins why I wanted to destroy a girl′s reputation and future, regardless of whether her father gave his consent. So I only engaged Arab actresses, who then had to study the Bedouin dialect for three months and visit Bedouin villages. But a few Bedouin men did act in the film.

To what extent did your short film lead you to your feature film?

Zexer: I shot the short film on the same subject, just to see if I was capable of making a feature film in a foreign language and about a foreign culture. Then I showed the Bedouins DVDs of the short film. They were so happy with it, that they kept asking me when they could watch the ″big film″. My short film was screened at 140 festivals and won many prizes; this helped me to produce the feature film. I worked on the screenplay for four years.

How difficult was it for you to direct a film in Arabic?

Zexer: I began to learn Arabic two years before we began filming. I still don′t understand it perfectly, but enough to understand the dialogues in my film. In almost all scenes the emotional expressions of the actors, the music and the dialogues were sufficient for me. I wrote the screenplay in Hebrew and a Bedouin translated it, so that most of the Arab actors even had to act in a slightly foreign language.

How was the film received at the Berlinale Film Festival?

Zexer: A number of critics praised the film and several Syrian and Iranian spectators told me after the screening how much they loved it.

Interview conducted by Igal Avidan

© 2016

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