The old classroom concept of show-and-tell becomes a richer, deeper exercise for a workshop of Arab and Jewish women in Israeli filmmaker Orit Fouks Rotem’s heartfelt feature debut ‘Cinema Sabaya’. With cameras and encouraged to record their lives and voice their dreams by a young teacher/filmmaker named Rona (Dana Ivgy), the eight characters in Rotem’s screenplay also receive a lesson in compassion by sharing their images and to talk about it.
Meanwhile, we get a wonderfully casual, slightly intimate experience that exists in a dramatic arena between observational non-fiction and the bare focus of theatre. If Israel’s entry to this year’s Oscars had garnered an international feature film nomination, it might have provided a spiritually across-the-category companion to the Best Picture nominee, “Women Talking.” (Instead, it’s down to the ignored female-made features “Saint Omer,” “The Woman King,” and “She Said.”)
The film’s only location is a modest community center in Hadera with a mixed population, but that’s just the physical, neutral setting. As we get to know these Israeli women spanning generations and see what their cameras reveal, worlds open up and the reality of coercion in their lives becomes apparent. That duality is in the title (which is the name of the workshop): it is pointed out early on that while ‘sabaya’ usually means ‘group of young women’ in Arabic, it is also a term that can convey ‘prisoner of war’. (Islamic State notoriously referred to their sex prisoners as “sabaya”.)
However, the women defy easy categorization, except for the denominator of the sisterhood that they all do good work for the council: legal advice, library service, social work, caregiving. Only their dreams, prompted by the teacher’s interview style at the beginning, betray age and experience, of the long-retired, 73-year-old grandmother Awatef (Marlene Bajali) – “What dream?” she jokes – to uptight student poet/painter Nahed (Aseel Farhat), who believes she can do anything.
Tough, glamorous Palestinian lawyer Nasrin (a magnetic Amal Murkus) recalls her desire to sing, while high-spirited, upper-class Jewish mother Eti (Orit Samuel) always wanted to be a movie star. Though Nasrin and Eti have the class’s first tense exchange — sparked by a comment exposing Eti’s privilege and prejudice against Muslims — they don’t let it deter the class’ work, or affect later, friendlier interactions when the exercises become more soul-bearing . .
Marriage and family, and agency within them, are intertwined subjects of sensitivity that yield more molecular shifts in the room. Yelena (Yulia Tagil), a Russian émigré, has left her husband but is now strapped for cash and has to live with her parents, while Gila (Ruth Landau) has a happy marriage only because she left an abusive first husband. And mild-mannered, hijab-sporting mother of six Souad (a quietly forceful Joanna Said), a reluctant contestant, wants to learn how to drive, if only it doesn’t anger her husband.
In one of the most moving scenes about art and understanding, Souad is asked to freely associate with simple, hypnotic images she has created at home of water filling a bucket. The exercise is supposed to include a letter read aloud, but when she needs to talk, she freezes. So do the others and praise the artistry of her eye, the life it suggests. They tell her that the image says enough.
While creation and conversation enable women to move beyond acknowledged differences – about divorce, sexuality, raising children, even what language to speak (mainly Hebrew, with interspersed Arabic) – and towards friendship, so too is the teacher’s dream revealed. It leads to the film’s final, refreshingly necessary, ethical conversation: How do you reconcile private and public when it comes to art, storytelling, and empowerment?
To some extent, Rotem’s poignant, compelling work—created with actors, but adapted from real stories of women they encountered in similar workshops, blending the specific, the fabricated, and the universal—is a subtly rendered answer to that question. But it starts with keeping the conversations going and the cameras rolling.
In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles
Duration: 1 hour, 32 minutes
To play: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles