CINEMA SABAYA – Review by Marilyn Ferdinand

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Israel’s official submission to the 2022 Academy Awards, director Orit Fouks Rotem’s Cinema Sabaya, is a deceptive film. Shot like a documentary, the film combines professional and first-time actors, improvisation and scripted dialogue, professional shots and amateur video to tell the story of eight Jewish and Arab women who attend a workshop at a community center in Hadera, near Haifa, Israel, to learn how to use a video camera to document aspects of their daily lives. The film’s name also takes on a double meaning: “sabaya,” Arabic for “woman,” is used by the militant Islamic group ISIS to denote the Kurdish women they kidnap to serve as sex slaves. During the course of the film, the second meaning of the word will assert itself.

Professional filmmaker Rona (professional actor Dana Ivgy), the group’s facilitator, asks each of the women what their dream is during their first meeting. Thereafter, she makes weekly assignments that will be shown in class; these exercises are designed to help the women gain perspective on their own lives and the lives of their classmates.

Initial tension arises when the group decides to use Hebrew to communicate because everyone knows it. Nahed (professional actor Aseel Farhat) says nothing, but the annoyed look on her face speaks her displeasure. She will become a passive resister in the class, blowing off her assignments and warning the other women that their private experiences could become fodder for Rona’s career advancement.

Carmela (first-time actor Liora Levi) lives on a boat, boasts of her adventures, and proudly declares that she will love whomever appeals to her, male or female, when the women question Rona’s sexual orientation after seeing a photo of her kissing another woman on the mouth. The 73-year-old matriarch of the group, Awatef (professional actor Marlene Bajali), is relieved to learn that the other woman in the photo is Rona’s sister, declaring that Rona would be dead to her if she was a lesbian. Despite her strict religiosity, Awatef often offers commonsense advice and the kind of calm acceptance of many things that comes with old age.

Described with the phrase “still waters that run deep,” Souad (first-time actor Joanna Said, winner of the 2022 Israeli Film Academy’s Best Supporting Actress Award) is the most withdrawn of the group. She shies from questions about why she doesn’t remove her hijab when with the women in the workshop, where it is not required, leaving the answer to come from someone else. When she turns in an exercise that depicts water running, she cannot explain what the image means to her, leading others to try to interpret her intentions. In an attempt to open her up, Rona suggests Souad role-play asking her husband to allow her to take driving lessons, with unexpected consequences.

The combination of the setting far removed from a movie studio and the mix of experienced and novice actors gives Cinema Sabaya an authenticity that had me questioning whether I was watching a feature film or a documentary. A clever ending that allows the women to briefly imagine living their dream emphasizes their individuality. While some bridges may have been built between some of these Arab and Jewish women, the film doesn’t overplay the modest gains that may have been made. But we as audience members learn a great deal about the attitudes and challenges of women living in Israel, and that is quite an accomplishment.

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Marilyn Ferdinand (Archived Contributor)

Marilyn Ferdinand is the founder of the review and commentary site Ferdy on Films (2005-2018) and the fundraising Love of Films: The Film Preservation Blogathon. She currently writes for Cine-File and has written on film and film preservation for Humanities magazine, Fandor, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. She lives in the Chicago area.