“Cinema Sabaya,” Israel’s international feature entry for this year’s Oscars (though not nominated), looks and feels like a behind-the-scenes documentary. It’s not — the actors aren’t playing themselves and the drama is scripted. But the film resides in the porous boundary between fiction and reality, mounting a chamber piece of sorts not unlike “Women Talking,” but enriched by naturalistic flair that eschews didacticism.
Dana Ivgy plays Rona, a filmmaker from Tel Aviv who is running a video workshop for Arab and Jewish women in a small town in northern Israel. The film’s director, Orit Fouks Rotem, was inspired by her mother’s participation in a similar course; she went on to organize sessions for other women, which — along with testimonies from the actors — inform her fictional rendition. In “Cinema Sabaya,” each member is given a hand-held device to complete assignments that involve capturing moments from their lives beyond the classroom. But using themselves as the grist of the mill for their training means revealing themselves as well — their struggles with tradition, sexuality, domesticity — while their homework is often blown up on a big screen and shared with the others.
Discussions that double as group therapy sessions are captured with observational distance, while hand-held home-video footage punctuates these subdued symposiums, adding to the film’s documentary-style designs.
Tensions arise by dint of the group’s diversity. The punchy Nahed (Aseel Farhat) is a student and nonpracticing Muslim, while Awatef (Marlene Bajali) is a septuagenarian traditionalist. The hesitant Souad (Joanna Said) is trapped in an unhappy marriage, which triggers conjugal horror stories from a divorced woman, Yelena (Yulia Tagil), and the remarried Gila (Ruth Landau).
The elephant in the room is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its attendant biases, which emerge during a heated session in which the bubbly Eti (Orit Samuel), a middle-aged Jewish woman, confesses to her fear of Islamic terrorists. The workshop is ultimately a unity exercise premised on the trite axiom that conversation breeds compassion. It’s not an unwelcome reminder, and Rotem’s organic approach steers clear of icky idealism, but its conclusions nevertheless feel worn out. Talking helps, sure, but getting people in the same room is too often the stuff of fiction.
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