Israel’s ‘Sand Storm’ Will Be Country’s First Arabic-Language Foreign Oscar Entry

Sand Storm Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Sand Storm,” a drama with entirely Arabic dialogue, will represent Israel this year in the race for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

“Sand Storm” picked up top honors Thursday night at the Ophir Awards, the annual competition by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television that is commonly referred to as Israel’s version of the Oscars. The winner of the Israeli Ophir for Best Film of the Year each year automatically becomes Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the following year’s Oscars. Its win marks the first time a film entirely in Arabic, rather than Hebrew, has earned the prize.

In addition to Best Film, “Sand Storm” — a tightly edited, emotional look at two women within Israel’s Bedouin community, helmed by Elite Zexer, a Jewish Israeli woman — picked up five other trophies including best director for Zexer. It will open in the U.S. on Oct. 7

The win was a triumph for the oft-sidelined Bedouin community in Israel, a subgroup of Israeli Arabs who are largely nomadic, make up about 3 percent of the population and who face staggering crises of education, health care and access to general services. “Sand Storm” picked up a Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance, had been nominated in nearly every Ophir category, and was generally regarded as one the year’s strongest films.

Its night of triumph, however, was largely upstaged by a political protest from Israel’s controversial Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, who stormed out of the award hall when Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar recited a poem by Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish, a former member of the PLO and the beloved Palestinian national poet, is considered by many in Israel to be anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and opposed to the existence of the Jewish State.

She later returned to the ceremony, and in remarks delivered at the end of the evening, Regev said, “I have a lot of tolerance for the ‘other’, but I have no tolerance for Darwish and anyone who wants to eliminate Israel.”

Nafar’s performance had originally been nixed due to its material, but after accusations of censorship from four Arab nominees, who threatened to skip the Ophirs all together, he was allowed to go on.

Nafar himself was nominated for Best Actor in Udi Aloni’s “Junction 48,” in which he starred and co-wrote, and later picked the prize for best music alongside Itamar Ziegler.

“Sand Storm” had been hotly tipped for Best Picture honor but prevailed in what was an unusually tight race this year. Also up for the prize was Orthodox helmer Rama Burshtein’s “Through the Wall”; Asaph Polonsky’s “One Week and a Day”; Meny Yaesh’s “Our Father”; and Eran Kolirin’s “Beyond the Mountains and Hills.”

Israeli films have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film 10 times but have never won.