Take A Trip To ‘Cinema Sabaya’

Israel’s award-winning Cinema Sabaya (In Hebrew: סינמה סבאיא) is making its premiere on these shores two years after its release in Israel. During its journey, the movie won the “Israeli Oscar”, the Ophir, for Best Feature Film, as well as Best Director for Orit Fouks Rotem (also the screenwriter) and three other Ophir awards. Cinema Sabaya also received The Best Debut Film Award at the 2021 Israeli Film Festival.

With an all-female cast, the story focuses on a workshop at the Center for Social Equity At The Coexistence Center conducted by an Israeli filmmaker, Rona (Dana Ivgy). The eight participants, all of whom work for the municipality and local council, are Jewish and Arab women who get a dose of empowerment and learn about each other, themselves, and are challenged to have their prejudices and ignorance potentially transform into something new.

Nahed (Aseel Farhat), a student and non-practicing Muslim, gets to the heart of the conflict among them immediately when she objects to the course being taught in Hebrew since there are also Arabic speakers within the octet. One of the women tells Rona, “Sabaya, don’t worry about it” and another explains that the way Rona pronounces it, Sabaya means “prisoner of war”. With a Hebrew inflection, however, the word translates to “group of women”. Rona and the rest have their work cut out for them in parsing these subtleties and navigating bigger cultural and political debates.

There are domestic issues – Eti (Orit Samuel), an HR head, has a depressive, distant husband, Gila (Ruth Landau), a librarian, is on her “act two” after a divorce and second marriage, and Yelena (Yulia Tagil), works in the tax department. Like Gila, she divorced an abusive husband, and Yelena is back living at her mother’s, along with her two young daughters. At the opposite end, traditional Awatef (Marlene Bajali), who just turned 73 and worked for the municipality for nearly three decades, is very content with her “eight kids, good husband, and nice house” while Carmela (Liora Levy), quite the outlier amid this lot, is an ecology projects manager and sailor who lives with her dog on a yacht.

The women also share their dreams. Nasrin (Amal Murkus), a lawyer who works with political prisoners, fantasizes about becoming a singer. Yelena is eager to buy her own home while Eti wants to be center stage on the big screen and Gila hopes to become a grandmother. Arguably the most fascinating member is Souad (Ophir winner Joanna Said), who has a seemingly minor aspiration – to get a driver’s license for her job caring for the elderly – that reveals far bigger problems within her marriage to a jealous man she regrets marrying, but is trapped after six kids.

As part of the workshop, Rona gives each woman a video camera so that they will film scenes from their homes, and she conducts group discussions when they screen their videos for everyone to watch and critique. There are moments of vulnerability – such as when Souad mentions she doesn’t like going to the beach in her hijab because of all the stares – and of camaraderie – Carmela invites her to come to her boat where “the sea accepts you for who you are”. There’s also the opportunity to pierce insular bubbles some live in, like Eti, who reveals that she has never met an Arab woman before and that when there were suicide bombings in Hadera, she crossed the street out of fear if an Arab woman walked toward her. When Nasrin asks if she had been afraid upon learning there would be Arab women in the program, Eti responds that “as a Jew, I feel the same animosity overseas. We’re in the same place as an Arab or a Jew. We each have people against us”.

Though Cinema Sabaya is a work of fiction, its emphasis on the collaboration between Jews and Arabs makes for a useful tool. With its distinctly female lens and thoughtful approach, the movie offers that if women were in power in the Middle East, there might be the chance for a thawing of tensions and some progress between nations.

The film will be available via VOD on June 13th.