A man meticulously wipes down his car in the dark. From inside his garage, the moment is secretly captured on video by the man's wife. Later in class, she plays the video while reciting a poem about the joylessness of their marriage.
This is just one of many homework assignments in a course on video-making undertaken by a group of small-town Israeli women in "Cinema Sabaya." Both Arab and Jewish, young, and old, the women of "Cinema Sabaya" learn about much more than filmmaking during the class; they discover that their differences are far outweighed by their bonds as women making their way in a patriarchal world.
"Cinema Sabaya" recently swept the Ophir Awards (Israel's equivalent of the Oscars), winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress. Written and directed by Orit Fouks Rotem, the film is shot in the style of Cinema Verite, its touch so light and authentic you would be forgiven if you thought it was a documentary.
Rotem based the film on the life stories of women she got to know through several videography courses she taught in Israel. She cast mostly non-actresses and let their own backstories inform their characters, ultimately abandoning her script in favor of a more improvisational approach to the material. The result is an incredibly realistic rendering of these women's lives, which is both heartbreaking and joyful.
The women themselves hail from diverse backgrounds, ranging from a conservative Muslim retiree in her 70s, to a young, secular Muslim woman in her 20s, to a relatively affluent middle-aged Jewish mother, and finally, to a divorced Jewish woman in her 30s who reluctantly moved back in with her parents.
Their first assignment, which is to create a short video of where they live, immediately exposes their class differences. One's cramped quarters clearly contrasts with another's spacious interior.
It's clear from the beginning that these women have come here seeking more than just a class. On the very first day, their teacher, Rona (Dana Ivgy), asks them to sit before the camera and tell everyone about themselves and their dream. For some, this is a rare moment in the spotlight while the rest of their day is spent serving others in their roles as mother, wife, or daughter. For a few, this is a daring first step of self-discovery. In either case, the women cheer each other on as they step out of their comfort zones.
This evident goodwill doesn't prevent the outbreak of controversy, particularly between Jewish and Muslim women in the room. Rotem wisely gets the most obvious conflict out of the way early, allowing one of the Jewish women to acknowledge her suspicion of Arabs by admitting that she crosses the street for fear of falling victim to a suicide bomber. Recriminations are swift, as words like "occupiers" and "rulers" are tossed around. The moment is heated and unresolved. Later, the two women at the center of the argument become friends. Much like the porcelain elephants that adorn a nook in one of the women's homes, the issue has made its appearance; it's now time to move on to something else.
As the film progresses (spoiler alert!), the students slowly let down their guard, the exercises spurring them to look at their lives from new vantage points. Urged to share their innermost struggles, secrets spill out and the women's vulnerabilities become evident. They become more than just a class; they become friends, family, and a support group. If there's a character that epitomizes this journey, it's standout Souad, which garnered Joanna Said a best supporting actress Ophir for her performance. Souad is a sheepish, conservative Muslim woman and mother of six who avoids the beach because of people staring at her hijab. Her dream is to get her driver's license, something her overbearing husband opposes. While obtaining her driver's license may seem a perfectly attainable goal, we soon learn that it may be just as out of reach for her as wanting to be a movie star or owning a home in the ritziest part of Tel Aviv.
As they encourage each other to dig deeper, a question emerges as to how healthy all this self-discovery actually might be. Instructor Rona is struck by the honesty of their work and begins to imagine compiling the assignments into a feature length film to share with the world. Without their permission, she begins to cut the film together, while prodding them to explore further. All the while, Rona keeps her cards close to the vest, unwilling to share her own work or life with them. When a screensaver inadvertently shows Rona kissing another woman, the class wants to know if she's a lesbian. Rona says the woman is her sister, but we have no way of knowing if she's telling the truth or not. She's a mystery and keeps it that way, even as she pushes the others to bare it all.
In the end, it's unclear if the course will aid these women in actualizing their dreams. Will it be empty wish fulfillment or will the gains they've made translate to something more when the course is over? Rona laments that no one but her may ever get to see the beauty of these women's lives, which "Cinema Sabaya" aims to share with the world. Rotem shows us the power of women speaking their truths through her film. "Cinema Sabaya" reminds us that our dreams can be large, like stardom, or small, like a driver's license, but that no dream should go overlooked.
"Cinema Sabaya" opens in theaters on February 10, 2023 at the Quad Cinema in New York City, with national expansion to follow.