After winning both the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and the Best New Director award at the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival, Elite Zexer has become a force to be reckoned with in a very short time. During the festival here in Seattle, I was able to sit down with Zexer to talk about Sand Storm, her debut film, and she was more than willing to discuss all aspects of the film making process. If you are a fan of cinema or an aspiring film maker, you will definitely want to check out how she describes what it took to get this movie made.
Marc: First off, where did the idea for Sand Storm come from and what inspired you to make this film?
Elite Zexer: The idea originally came from my mother. She's a still photographer and she did some photography with Bedouin people about ten years ago. She met a lot of them and became very good friends so she asked me to come and meet them and I also became friends with them almost immediately. The inspiration came from the first girl I saw who had gone through the experience that is similar to what you see in the film, but over ten years time, I saw about 50 more girls go through the arranged marriage and "second woman" type situations which is very common. Both stories are very common.
Marc: What type of locations did you use for the shoot?
Elite Zexer: I shot in four different villages so the film was spread out over these four locations that are in the desert of southern Israel. They are all pretty close to each other, it's about a five minute drive between each one. Also, the villages and the land are unrecognized by the Israeli government as being owned by the Bedouin even though they have been there for dozens of years. Some villages do get recognized but a lot of them don't and it's a situation that needs to be solved because it's been that way for a long time. In some of the places that I shot, the villages right now don't have roads, they don't have electricity, and they don't have other basic needs.
Marc: Did you have any difficulty filming in these villages?
Elite Zexer: Since I have known Bedouin people for many years, I have a lot of connections so I would go to the people I know and ask them for help and they directed me to people who would be able to let me film. When you go to find a place, you need to be able to ask the people if you can go into it for a week and, when you have families living in the home, it's tough to film inside their house. Because of that, I needed to be directed to places where people would cooperate and I could use the location for a week without disturbing the family.
Marc: Did you encounter anyone who was resistant to the type of story you were trying to tell?
Elite Zexer: No, it wasn't like that. I was searching for places that would be available to shoot in terms of technical conditions. I needed a place that we could occupy for a film shoot over a week's time, where it wouldn't disturb the family or the village, and not all villages are built to do something like that. The places we went to were very accepting and very supportive. They helped us with everything in the production, with the traditions, and to make sure we are doing it right.
Marc: What was the casting process like for this film?
Elite Zexer: It took me about a year to cast the film. I could not cast Bedouin women because they are very traditional and I could not put them on screen so I had to cast Arabs. There are some Bedouin men in the film, like the grandfather, but all the women, including the little girl, are Arabs so when I cast them, I had to teach them how to speak because the dialect is different. I brought in a Bedouin man who sat with them for two months and taught them how to speak.
Marc: I was really curious about Ruba Blal, who played the mother, because I thought her performance was very impressive and her character is like the foundation for the whole story with the strength that she conveyed.
Elite Zexer: I guess it's a personality thing to see who you relate to because half of the viewers think the girl is the foundation of the story and the other half think it's the mother, but I think they are both just phenomenal. Ruba Blal is an experienced actress, she made her first film in 2003 or 2004, it was called Thirst, and she's actually the first person we saw. I looked inside and outside of Israel and the more we looked, the more I realized she is the one so, by the time I got to matching, she was the only one.
For the girl, I saw a lot of Laylas and, when I saw Lamis Ammar, I wasn't sure if she was the one because she is very different from the character that I wrote, but we saw that there was something with her and we didn't want to just say no, she's not right. I kept working with her and auditioning more and more and, as we would talk, we kind of both changed our approach and I found myself rewriting scenes after I had auditions with her. After a month of rewriting more and more of the script, I realized I was rewriting the script for this girl so she was the one.
Marc: This was her first feature film, correct?
Elite Zexer: Yes, it was her third year of acting school and she had only done theater before making this film. I think she went through a really nice process of learning what it means to be on a film set and her way of acting was completely different by the time we finished. She was a different actor and it was amazing to witness that and to be a part of it. By the end, I found myself directing her differently, which she needed because she was evolving. It was very amazing for me to see her evolve in that way.
Marc: From what I have read from other people involved with the film, they were very impressed with how prepared you were, especially since this was your first feature film. What was your process during pre production to get to that level of preparation before filming even started?
Elite Zexer: Well, first of all, I wrote the film over four and a half years time so I got to the point where the script was very precise. I had to shoot the dialog exactly from the script because I was teaching the actors how to speak and we were translating the script to Bedouin. Because we had to teach them the Bedouin, we couldn't go one word off of the script and we couldn't do any type of improv. Afterwards, I found myself editing the script in a very precise order. I didn't change anything, I didn't take out any scenes, and I only re shot two scenes, but only because I changed my mind about something. I think because the script writing was so long and intense that I came prepared knowing exactly what I wanted to shoot.
The other thing is that we had very intense rehearsals, we rehearsed for two months, rehearsing every scene for two hours and, if I felt it wan't good enough, we would do another. We never went to the set without knowing everything is there, understanding exactly how we wanted it, and then I did the same thing shooting. I talked with my DP (director of photography), so we knew exactly what we wanted from every scene and how we were going to shoot it. I knew by heart, every shot we were going to make, but then every scene started with another half hour of rehearsal. It wasn't building on what we did before, we were rebuilding the scene over again because maybe things have changed and once something changes, everything from before is irrelevant.
Also, because a lot of the actors weren't experienced, they really didn't know how to have the same kind of energy when we tell them "okay, now start from the middle". After a day, I found myself realizing I have to do the scenes from beginning to end all the time because I wanted to give them that space. Sometimes, I had scenes divided into ten shots, but I didn't want to do the ten shots because I wanted to give them the space to do the whole scene every time. Even though we knew exactly what we wanted from every minute of every scene, I would still have to rebuild the scene with them on set. They would do it again and again and the DP would just film them from different directions and we would find the right shots on set.
I had a very young and spirited crew who were willing to go with changes in the movie and believing in what we are doing without being set in their mind to a certain way of working. I was lucky to have a very passionate crew who would support this way of refining everything and how we were doing it. Every scene was basically shot from every direction and we would keep changing and keep moving until we found everything we wanted.
Marc: Tell me about your experience this year at the Sundance Film Festival where you won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize.
Elite Zexer: It's amazing, what can I say!
Sundance was just...I could not have asked for a better premiere for the film. It was crazy, I was running to get it finished and I came to the festival literally with no time to breathe and with this brand new film in my hands. From the second we landed, we felt love from every direction, from the crowd, from the festival, the viewers, from everything. It was just so welcoming and so nice and so amazing and then winning was just the icing on the cake. I couldn't have asked for a better place to start and to have this experience, especially for a first film. Sundance in particular is a festival that really wants to push first time directors, to give them their chance, and it was perfect for me.
After the festival ended, I said "okay, now when is the real premiere" because it was like a dream!
Marc: Were you afraid of the deadline at all since you had to have the film done for Sundance?
Elite Zexer: We wanted to make it for Sundance, but we kept telling ourselves that if we hurt the film because we are running too fast, then we'll stop. We were never afraid of it, but a race is a race and, in a race you always get there with no breath. I think it was good for the film because we were so intense and so into it and everything came together just in time.
Marc: Were there any difficulties or challenges in getting this film made?
Elite Zexer: I was actually really, really lucky. I found my producers six years before I made the film. I wanted to work with them and they told me "you're going to work with us" so I said okay, and they were the most amazing producers I could have asked for. I made a short film before this one just to see if I could make a film about Bedouins and this film was very successful. It went to 144 film festivals and won a lot of awards. It gave me a good start in raising money for the feature so it was very fast to raise the money and, every step of the way, I put a lot of work into it. I was very much a perfectionist in the way I made it but I wasn't struggling like a lot of first time film makers who have to struggle really hard and fight to get their wishes. I felt like my road was not like that because I worked hard for it and it's not like it was just given to me, but I still feel pretty lucky in the way it all came together.
Also, when you are preparing, there are so many ups and downs. For four years, you're by yourself or with one other person and suddenly you're surrounded by a hundred people and you're making a film but it's amazing because now you're not alone and they're all there for you. Then, after those three months, it's just you and an editor again and there's the loneliness and you feel it on your shoulders. It's not a world where you go to an office and every day you know it's the same thing and you know your life is stable. It's always evolving and changing and you always have to adapt to something new.
What I found myself understanding, after a year or two into it, is that you have to keep your emotions together all the time or you're going to go crazy. The only other thing I can say, to answer your question, is that making a film has so many ups and downs, it's like being in an amusement park, all the time!
This interview took place on Wednesday, June 8th at the W Hotel in downtown Seattle during the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival.
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