'Cinema Sabaya’ presents intense look at memorable Jewish & Arab women - review

Cinema Sabaya is formulaic. You know that the characters will stereotype each other at first and that the prejudices will gradually be stripped away as they get to know each other better.

 A SCENE FROM ‘Cinema Sabaya.’ (photo credit: Green Productions and United King Films/Ella Barak)
A SCENE FROM ‘Cinema Sabaya.’
(photo credit: Green Productions and United King Films/Ella Barak)

Cinema Sabaya, a drama opening in theaters on September 1, is based on director Orit Fouks Rotem’s experiences running a filmmaking group for Jewish and Arab female municipal employees in several places around the country. It has the feel of a documentary: Its characters seem so real that you can’t believe they are not simply playing themselves. 

In fact, only three-time Ophir Award winner Dana Ivgy, who portrays the workshop’s teacher, Rona, is a professional actress and the others are apparently playing versions of themselves. The movie won awards for Best Debut Feature Film and the Audience Award (an important accolade to watch for if you’re looking for an entertaining film) at the Jerusalem Film Festival last year. 

If you have ever been in a group situation like the one portrayed in the film, you know that it can be an intense experience getting to know a group of people, many of whom are very different from you, in a setting that gives you a glimpse into everyone’s lives. 

At first, you may struggle to remember everyone’s name, while by the end you may feel you have gotten to know them deeply. Your perspective may have changed as a result of learning more about people you would have never gotten to know in your daily life – and you may have even made some new friends. Rotem has managed to recreate this kind of experience in her film. 

In some ways, Cinema Sabaya is formulaic. You know that the characters will stereotype each other at first and that the prejudices will gradually be stripped away as they get to know each other better. But, thanks to the engagingly natural performances by the women, it is enjoyable. The very quirky and human characters will surprise you. 

SHIRA HAAS receives the prize for Best Supporting Actress at the 2018 Ophir Awards ceremony (credit: FLASH90)SHIRA HAAS receives the prize for Best Supporting Actress at the 2018 Ophir Awards ceremony (credit: FLASH90)

Diversity of characters in the film

The movie is well-paced and so engaging that it begins to resemble a Middle Eastern version of the television series, Orange is the New Black, as it brings together a group of women from different ethnicities and backgrounds, although in Cinema Sabaya they are municipal employees and not prisoners. 

Cinema Sabaya moves gracefully among the various women’s video assignments, which they show to the group, gradually revealing their life stories. The twist here is that just as the women fight with their perceptions of who they should be, and how they should present themselves, as well as how they think everyone else should act, the audience also confronts its own prejudices. 

Not only are they Jews and Arabs, but they are different ages and at various stages in life, from women just out of university to grandmothers. There is an Eastern-European mother who struggles to make ends meet, an older Arab woman who is especially funny and candid when she talks about how she has made her marriage last, a woman whose husband is depressed and resists taking any steps to heal, another who is a devoted wife and mother who dreams of a glamorous singing career and, inevitably, there is a woman with an abusive husband. Perhaps the most intriguing character is a bisexual woman who lives a reclusive existence with a dog in a trailer. 

Rona encourages the women to perform psychological exercises, without quite realizing that she is playing with fire and that such exercises can be traumatic instead of healing. There is also a subplot in which Rona considers using their stories for a film of her own, which rightly makes some of them feel betrayed. In the end, Rotem seems to have done exactly what Rona considers, but because this film is fiction, presumably the details have been changed in a way that the real women she met are comfortable with.

The movie mainly allows these women to shine and reveal themselves to the camera. What you remember long afterward are their faces, their voices and their stories. As with Orange is the New Black, which was constantly playing with our expectations, it is worth examining how your initial perceptions of the characters in Cinema Sabaya have changed by the end of the 90-minute film.