‘Cinema Sabaya’ Review: Women Talking (and Filming) in Israel’s Excellent Oscar Submission

Israel’s submission for the international feature Oscar, the intimate, prize-winning drama “Cinema Sabaya,” is one of the country’s relatively few movies centering on a collaboration between Jews and Arabs. It follows a video workshop where eight women, four Jewish and four Muslim, are assigned 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 Fouks Rotem’s experience as a teacher and the real women she encountered, the film is full of life, love, humor and authenticity 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 action takes place in the small, neutral, enclosed space of the Hadera Coexistence Center, it opens doors to places further afield through the homework assignments that aspiring feature maker and newbie teacher Rona (a fine Dana Ivgy) gives to the class. Viewers get a first impression of the students as Rona explains framing and zooming, while giving each woman a chance to introduce themselves and their dreams.

Varying widely in age, income, marital status and outlook, the group (or sabaya of the title) includes current and former employees of the municipality. It includes lawyer Nasrin (Amal Murkus), HR chief Eti (Orit Samuel), retiree Awatef (Marlene Bajali), librarian Gila (Ruth Landau), student Nahed (Aseel Farhat), ecology projects manager Carmela (Liora Levi), caregiver for the elderly Souad (Joanna Said) and tax department worker Yelena (Yulia Tagil).

Each exercise Rona assigns (from taking sound to filming what they consider their place) inspires a range of different responses, which in turn elicits frank and interesting conversation from the group, including heated political discussion and cultural misunderstandings. They also hold forth on subjects ranging from marriage to motherhood to depression to spousal abuse to self-realization. It’s clear that the practical skills they are learning come with a side of female empowerment and quasi-group therapy.

Several of the women, those in more powerful and public-facing jobs, are quicker to seize on the potential of the camera and the class to work out their thoughts and problems. For others, like the shy, hijab-wearing Souad, a beleaguered mother of six, the opportunity to act and direct a scene leads to a surprising emotional eruption. In contrast, a more light-hearted highlight involves the filming of a music video clip, with Nasrin performing a traditional Arab song. The end credits epitomize this spirit of joy, with each woman pictured accomplishing the dream she spoke of at the beginning.

Without any context, some viewers may believe the film is a documentary since it feels so organic and naturalistic, with complex, well-rounded characters. Rotem gained extra authenticity by rewriting her characters as she found her cast. Indeed, in some cases, she incorporated elements of the actors’ life stories. Moreover, she didn’t insist on the performers (some of whom are pros) delivering her dialogue verbatim, instead allowing them to interpret the intention behind the lines and say them in their own words. Give me these women talking over Sarah Polley’s any day.

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