Israel’s submission for the International Feature Oscar, the intimate, award-winning drama “Cinema Sabaya,” is one of the country’s relatively few films focusing on collaboration between Jews and Arabs. It follows a video workshop in which eight women, four Jewish and four Muslim, are commissioned to film their lives. As they share their footage, barriers are broken, beliefs are challenged, and they learn more about each other and themselves. Based on helmer-writer Orit Fuchs Rotem’s experiences as a teacher and the real women he encounters, the film is full of life, love, humor and truth without being didactic. At the same time, it cleverly questions the ethics and responsibility of filmmaking. This Kino Lorber pickup will open stateside in February.
Although the work takes place in the small, neutral, enclosed space of the Hadera Coexistence Center, it opens the door to spaces further afield through the homework assignments that aspiring feature-maker and novice teacher Rona (a delicate Dana Ivy) gives to the class. The audience gets a first impression of the students as Rona explains framing and zooming, giving each woman a chance to introduce themselves and their dreams.
Varying widely in age, income, marital status, and attitudes, groups (or Sabaya title) includes present and former employees of the municipality. It includes lawyer Nasreen (Amal Murkus), HR chief Iti (Orit Samuel), retiree Awatef (Marlene Bajali), librarian Gila (Ruth Landau), student Nahed (Asil Farhat), ecology project manager Carmela (Leora Levy), caregiver. Elderly Saud (Joanna Said) and tax department worker Yelena (Yulia Tagil).
Each exercise Rona assigns (from taking sound to picturing what they consider to be their place) inspires a range of different responses, which in turn generate open and interesting conversations from the group, including heated political discussions and cultural misunderstandings. . They also address issues ranging from marriage to motherhood to depression to spousal abuse to self-realization. It is clear that the practical skills they are learning come from an aspect of women’s empowerment and quasi-group therapy.
Many women, who hold more powerful and public-facing jobs, are quick to seize the possibility of cameras and classes to air their thoughts and issues. For others, the shy, hijab-wearing Soud, a mother of six, the chance to act and direct a scene leads to a surprising emotional outburst. In contrast, a more light-hearted highlight involved the filming of a music video clip, in which Nasrin performs a traditional Arab song. The latter’s achievements reflect this spirit of joy, with each woman fulfilling the dream she spoke of in the beginning.
Without any context, some viewers may believe the film is a documentary because it feels so organic and natural with complex, well-rounded characters. Rotem achieved additional authenticity by rewriting his characters as he found his cast. Indeed, in some cases, he incorporated elements of the actors’ life stories. Moreover, he does not insist on the actors (some of whom are professionals) to verbalize his dialogues, instead allowing them to explain the meaning behind the lines and say them in their own words. Let me talk about these ladies Sarah Polley.