Movie Review: Palestinian and Israeli women learn about filmmaking, and each other in this Oscar Submission — “Cinema Sabaya”

Israel’s bid for Best International Feature Oscar glory this year is a charming but slight drama about a group of women who take a filmmaking course in a community center in the Israeli city of Hadera.

Eight women join a class pitched by a Palestinian course planner at the center, taught by a young Israeli filmmaker, Rona (Dana Ivgy).

Right away, there’s a tiff over how it will be instructed — in Hebrew. It’s a concession the Palestinians taking the class don’t want to grant, but must as “we all understand Hebrew anyway,” the 73 year-old keeper-of-the-peace Awatef (Marlene Bajali) shrugs. All of the paperwork, and most of the class discussions will be in Hebrew, with some Arabic (all of it subtitled in English) peppering the chatter.

It’s unavoidable. Forced to live together, of course each has at least a little understanding of “the other.”

But that word the Palestinians use to greet each other, “Sabaya?” The somewhat tactless Israeli HR director Eti (Orit Samuel doesn’t know it.

“It means ‘prisoner of war.‘”

That’s an apt title that might be more so if there was more conflict here. As you might guess, the idea is that these women — Palestinian and Israeli, married, divorced, young-and-single or gay — will learn just how much they have in common as they study the basics of camera shots, edits, writing and cinema storytelling.

Rona keeps a smile on her face as she encourages women all across the spectrum, conservative Muslim to outspoken and more agnostic Israeli, to “open up” simply by taking the assigned video cameras home and showing their classmates, and us, their lives.

Their baby steps in filmmaking are often revealing. A simple walking and talking “scene” showing us a living room, a cat and a slightly-amused but churlish husband ends with his veiled criticism.

“How about filming the kitchen?”

Carmela (Liora Levi) lives with her dog on a sailboat. Souad (Joanna Said) is 35 and is overwhelmed by six kids and a husband who won’t let her get a driver’s license. Nasrin (Amal Markus) sees this as her last shot — she’s 50ish — at a singing career. Yelena (Yulia Tagil) is newly divorced, an embittered single mom forced to live with her parents.

They get a look into each other’s lives, chide and nag one another to take action to improve those lives and share more than a few frank assessments of their marriages, mental states and “dreams.”

A background noise awareness exercise even has one capture audio of a domestic abuse situation involving her neighbors.

The acting is uniformly fine, with many characters too guarded to let their true natures show, others pasting smiles over their real feelings about the others.

Some will be timid, others brought out of their shells and prejudices aired — by Israelis who “avoid” contact with people they’re sure want to kill them, by a Muslim who declares “You’d be dead to me” if this or that member of their circle turns out to be gay.

“You think murdering children and babies is right?”

“And you have the world’s most ‘humane’ army?”

It’s another one of the many Israeli films over the years that emphasizes connection, accidental or forced, in the close-quarters of Palestine — Israel, the Occupied Territories, lands under the Palestinian Authority.

And like most of these films, it offers a glimmer of hope, even if it’s too much to expect Orit Fouks Rotem’s film to play out as wholly neutral. They really are “Sabaya” trapped in the same sunbaked camp, with shared history and shared antagonisms, with or without a class on making movies that show much they have in common.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Joanna Said, Liora Levi, Dana Ivy, Marlene Bajali, Aseel Farhat, Yulia Tagil, Ruth Landau, Amal Markus, and Orit Samuel.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Orit Fouks Rotem. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:31

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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