MOVIE OF THE WEEK February 10, 2023: CINEMA SABAYA
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself having to confirm whether Israeli writer/director Orit Fouks Rotem’s Cinema Sabaya is a drama or a documentary. She takes such an authentic, cinema verite approach to her subjects — a disparate group of eight Jewish and Arab women who get to know each other while taking an introductory filmmaking class — that it’s easy to believe you’re watching real life unfold on screen.
That intimacy helps connect viewers to the characters and their conflicts, fully investing us in the film’s outcome. All of the women gradually reveal more of their true selves to their classmates, both in front of and behind the cameras that instructor Rona (Dana Ivgy) passes out on the first day of class. There’s bubbly Eti (Orit Samuel), whose energy masks self-doubt and uncertainty; serious Souad (Joanna Said), whose domestic bliss might not be quite so blissful after all; free-spirited Carmela (Liora Levi); slightly cynical Nahed (Aseel Farhat); wry Awatef (Marlene Bajali); Yelena (Yulia Tagil), who’s struggling after a divorce; Gila (Ruth Landau), who isn’t used to speaking up for herself; and Nasrin (Amal Murkus), an attorney who has a brassy persona and a kind heart.
Each class session finds the women sharing their homework — sights and sounds of their everyday lives with husbands, children, and animals — and talking about the often-difficult/serious subjects that come up as a result, from discrimination and depression to oppression and loneliness. There’s conflict, but they also support and cheer for each other, encouraging one another as both women and as budding filmmakers. Rona quietly guides them, her motivations perhaps not quite as transparent as they seem.
Ultimately, Cinema Sabaya (an Arabic word that means “group of women” if you pronounce it correctly — and “prisoners of war” if you don’t) is an exploration of what can happen when art helps strangers come together and surface differences are replaced by support and solidarity. Orit Fouks Rotem’s film is a delicate drama that reminds us how important it is to make the effort to understand others’ perspectives and experiences before judging them, with or without a camera in your hand. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand 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. Read full review.
Loren King Part consciousness raising, part revelation of truths and empowerment through the filmmaking process, the Israeli film Cinema Sabaya deftly uses the structure of a video workshop to create an intimate ensemble drama. Eight women from all walks of life, four Jewish and four Muslim, are enrolled in the workshop led by young teacher Rona (Dana Ivgy) who instructs the women to use the supplied cameras to record basic aspects of their lives. As they submit footage of their homes and families, they gradually reveal themselves to each other leading to questions, clashes, advice, discomfort and revelations. The other women urge Souad (Joanna Said) to defy her husband and pursue the drivers’ license she’s long wanted; Nasrin (Amal Murkus) joyfully performs an Arabic song while her colleagues improvise a dolly shot with a shopping cart; Gila (Ruth Landau) shares a painful past of domestic abuse. Directed by Orit Folks Rotem in a naturalistic, documentary style using both professional and non-professional actors, the film explores not just the self-esteem that the women gain from the process but film’s voyeuristic aspects and the ethical challenges inherent in such personal and charged filmmaking.
Leslie Combemale The official Israeli selection for the 2022 Academy Awards, this all-female fronted film is based on writer/director Orit Fouks Rotem’s time as a teacher and won 5 Ophir Awards, considered the Israeli Oscars. What begins as a film class becomes an empowering celebration of sisterhood. Every performance is well-anchored in their character, and each has their own story to tell, but it is this ensemble, the way they support and listen to each other, that will make for repeat viewing of the film. I loved it, and hope this particular MOTW attracts more viewers globally for this relative unknown feature, because it’s just lovely.
Jennifer Merin Cinema Sabaya is Israeli filmmaker Orit Fouks Rotem’s directorial debut, a beautifully rendered documentary-style narrative feature that firmly establishes the film’s potential social and cultural impact. The story involves an authentically diverse cast of Israeli women — four Arabs and four Jews — who’ve signed up and been brought together for an adult education course on filmmaking. In the workshop, the women — played by professional and first time actors — work together to produce short films that express their individual outlooks, reliefs, beliefs, and hopeful changes for the future. The key way in which characters work together collectively and support each other’s personal perspectives is highly inspiring and deeply moving. From a feminist perspective, Cinema Sabaya and its conclusion are moment to moment joy.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Israeli director Orit Fouks Rotem’s touching film Cinema Sabaya is an impactful story of a group of Arab and Jewish Israeli women who sign up for a film course at a community center together. The women range in age, religion, family situation and political beliefs, but as they learn the elements of filmmaking and share snippets of their lives, they grow closer and learn to appreciate one another. The cast, a mix of professional and non-professional actors, is so believable the movie almost feels like a documentary. A lovely and moving film that delves into substantive and timely topics far beyond the sociopolitical Arab-Israeli conflict.
Nell Minow: There is an intimate documentary feel in Cinema Sabaya about a group of Israeli women, Jews and Muslims, strictly observant and less religious, who meet in a filmmaking class. The purpose of the class is not to create art but to explore who they are and dreams they might never have acknowledged even to themselves. They acknowledge their differences but Their support for each other is gentle but meaningful and seeing through each other’s eyes via camera and sound helps them relish the universals — ungrateful husbands, grumpy teenagers, and dreams that may be beyond their reach. Acknowledging those dreams by filming the fantasy is not everything, but it is something.
Cate Marquis At the beginning of the documentary-like Israeli drama Cinema Sabaya, we learn that the word “sabaya” pronounced correctly in Arabic means a group of women but mispronounced it means “women prisoners of war.” It was a term ISIS used to describe the Yazidi women they held captive 2014 and can even imply “sex slave.” It is an interesting start to Orit Fouks Rotem’s slow-burn but ultimately powerful drama, one that touches on cross-cultural issues as well as on what shared aspects in women’s lives. Read full review.
Title: Cinema Sabaya
Director: Orit Fouks Rotem
Release Date: February 10, 2023
Running Time: 91 minutes
Language: Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Orit Fouks Rotem
Distribution Company: Kino Lorber
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
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Edited by Jennifer Merin