The intimate, award-winning drama “Cinema Sabaya” was Israel’s nomination for the international feature Oscar. It is one of the country’s very few films centered on collaboration between Jews and Arabs.
It focuses on a video workshop in which eight women, four Jewish and four Muslim, are tasked with filming their lives. As they share their footage, walls are shattered, beliefs are questioned, and people get a deeper understanding of one another and themselves.
Based on director and screenwriter Orit Folks Rotem’s experience as a teacher and the genuine ladies she met, the film is full of life, love, comedy, and honesty without being preachy. It cleverly questions the ethics and duty of filmmaking at the same time. This Kino Lorber acquisition will debut domestically in February.
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Although the action takes place in the small, neutral, enclosed environment of the Hadera Coexistence Center, the homework tasks that ambitious feature filmmaker and novice teacher Rona (a magnificent Dana Ivgy) give the class open doors to locations further afield. As Rona teaches framing and zooming, and as each student introduces herself and her aspirations, the audience receives a first impression of the pupils.
The group (or sabayon of the term) consists of current and past municipal employees with vastly varying ages, incomes, marital statuses, and outlooks. It consists of attorney Nasrin (Amal Murkus), HR director Eti (Orit Samuel), retiree Awatef (Marlene Bajali), librarian Gila (Ruth Landau), student Nahid (Aseel Farhat), ecology projects manager Carmela (Liora Levi), and tax department employee Yelena (Yulia Tagil).
Each project that Rona assigns (from recording sound to filming what they believe to be their place) produces a variety of answers, which in turn elicits candid and engaging discussions from the class, including fierce political debate and cultural misunderstandings.
They also discuss topics such as marriage, parenting, depression, domestic violence, and self-realization. Clearly, the practical skills women are gaining are accompanied by an element of female empowerment and a semblance of group therapy.
Several of the women with more influential and public-facing positions are quicker to recognize the potential of the camera and the program to help them work through their issues. Others, such as the timid, hijab-wearing Souad, a frustrated mother of six, experience an unexpected emotional outburst when given the opportunity to act and direct a scene.
In contrast, the making of a music video clip with Nasrin performing a traditional Arab song is a lighter moment. Each woman is depicted in the end credits achieving the goal she stated at the beginning of the film, exemplifying this spirit of joy.
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Some viewers may mistake the film for a documentary because it feels so genuine and naturalistic, and its characters are so complex. Rotem added authenticity to her characters by reworking them as she found her cast.
In several instances, she included pieces of the performers’ lives. Moreover, she did not insist that the actors (some of whom are professionals) recite her dialogue word-for-word; rather, she allowed them to interpret the meaning of the lines and express them in their own words. I’d rather hear these women than Sarah Polley’s.
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