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Review of Cinema Sabaya on May 24 at Winnipeg International Film Festival-Beautiful and Moving Film

by Jane Enkin May 5, 2023

Cinema Sabaya 

Narrative | Israel | 2021 | Director: Orit Fouks Rotem | Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles | 91 minutes

Showing Wednesday, May 24, 2023 at 7 pm at the Berney Theatre.

Also available virtually. See or call 204.477.7510


Cinema Sabaya is a beautiful and moving film. It concerns a group of women learning documentary film technique through a “Coexistence Centre”, and the movie itself has the feel of a documentary, through shifting camera angles, natural lighting, and low key performances. 

It is clear from the start that this is a mixed group, as two of the women are in hijab. There are Hebrew speakers and Arabic speakers, and one of the Jewish Hebrew speakers is surprised to learn that a woman can be a Muslim Arab without wearing hijab. 

A young Arabic speaker asks, “Is this course only in Hebrew? But there are Arabic speakers here. Why is the course in Hebrew?” The administrator responds, in Arabic, “Because all of us understand Hebrew and they can’t understand Arabic.” So a potential dynamic of “us and them” is established at the start. (It is helpful that the English captions identify lines of dialogue in Arabic.)

But the film deals only briefly with tension between Arabs and Jews. The focus of the movie is on women’s lives, and women coming to understand and support one another. As the women take part in exercises in video and audio technique, they use as subject matter their lives, their relationships and their longings. As the course goes on, they reveal more of their own lives and express more empathy for one another.

The participants all speak Hebrew with one another, but it’s interesting to note when the dialogue switches to Arabic. “I have 8 children, 3 doctors, 2 girls are lawyers… a good husband, a nice house…[In Arabic] Thank God.” The dream of a woman in hijab is to get a driver’s license. In Hebrew you hear women urging her to go for it, while in Arabic the elder woman of the group warns, “Don’t do anything behind your husband’s back.”

Warmth between the women builds as they share experiences, usually about their home relationships. The children and men in their lives, both those who appear in homework exercises and those who never appear on-screen, are all vivid characters. A harrowing argument in the circle concerns the question of whether a woman must determine herself to leave an abusive relationship – “She has to find the strength,”-- or cannot escape without help. Strikingly, a woman who tells her own story of leaving abuse then apologizes to the group for speaking about it. Another character explains the cost of living with a partner with depression. The dynamic between mothers and daughters comes up often. 

As the women learn film technique, the film’s director, Orit Fouks Rotem, encourages the audience to become more aware of the technique that goes into this movie. (You can find fascinating interviews about the making of the film online.) There is beauty found in the everyday  – one exquisite sequence is a long, slow shot of water from a tap filling a pot, with emphasis on the sound, the colours, the bubbles and shapes that form. 

Darkness and tension are important in this film, but there are lovely light-hearted moments. A lawyer brings her dream to life by singing for the group. Women of all backgrounds giggle together. Optimism, strength and warmth are shown in this wonderful film.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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