Orit Fouks Rotem on the Camera as a Democratizing Force in “Cinema Sabaya”

“Show something so we can see who you are,” a participant says during one of the group exercises that occurs throughout “Cinema Sabaya,” where a group of women in Israel are obliged to share their thoughts as part of their work in the Hadera Municipality. If they are to work for the city where tensions run high between people of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, the local government has set up sensitivity training that bring employees from different departments together to talk, though Rona (Dana Igvy), the moderator for these discussions is less intent on imposing a lesson plan than welcoming an education herself from the participants, handing them cameras to take home to document their lives outside of work and bring back to the conference room.

it doesn’t take long for the women in Orit Fouks Rotem’s feature debut to realize that they’ve been spending too much time in separate offices, perhaps as far apart from one another in how they see the world as their as their station in the bureaucracy when the program begins, but after boilerplate chitchat subsides about what they do in their job and their aspirations in life, talk turns towards the pressures they face, uniting everyone in the room from a lawyer in the tax department to an art teacher at one of the local schools. If that explosive and cathartic feeling of engagement bleeds off the screen, it is due in part to Rotem’s approach to the material, going beyond casting a compelling ensemble to engineer a shoot that would mirror the sensation that the characters were supposed to have as far as opening themselves up to new perspectives, filming sequentially and parsing out parts of the script only on a need-to-know basis to gain the energy and momentum of the lively exchanges that occur.

When the act of moviemaking is presented in the film as a liberating force with participants that, in having no familiarity with the equipment, make inventive uses of it – a shopping cart, for example, is repurposed as a makeshift camera dolly to brilliant effect – it becomes fitting that “Cinema Sabaya” is able to have a similarly refreshing power, offering up personal testimony that Rotem gathered over years of talking to women in the area and contextualizing it within the conversations that unfold on screen where everyone is comfortable airing their thoughts and experience yet makes visible the kinds of conflicts that prevent them from sharing outside these walls in scanning the room for reactions. Since its premiere last fall at the Jerusalem Film Festival, “Cinema Sabaya” has turned every theater it’s played in into a similar forum, sparking conversations not only within Israel, where it won the coveted Ophir Awards for Best Picture and Rotem as best director, but around the world – it arrives next year in the U.S. with a release from Kino Lorber following its festival run – and as its home country’s official selection to the Oscars, it’s bound to keep going, making it the opportunity to speak recently with the filmmaker when she was in Los Angeles a real treat.

How did this come about?

My mother is the advisor of women’s issues in Gedera, a small city in Israel. She participated in a group like that in the film, and I had this idea to make a film about it because I found a room with only women that observed their lives through cameras interesting as an idea. I started to make these groups myself as a research [where] I met a lot of women and they gave me a lot of inspiration. It took a lot of time to make it because in Israel to make a film is really difficult — to raise the money and the people that believe that you are capable to do it — but I let myself change a lot and the women that I met along the way to change the script over the years.

Was there an idea of who you wanted in this room when you were starting out?

The women that I met in my courses influenced me. For instance, the story of the woman that wanted a driver license, there really was a woman like that. I changed her personality and age, and I wanted to have a variety of women, ages, religious, energies, but when something touched me, I knew I wanted [that] in the film. Whenever I met someone [during casting] that I fell in love with, I changed it toward her.

You’ve said the actors weren’t necessarily their characters, but at the same time you worked a lot with them on their back stories. What was it like building the characters together?

It depends. [When] I studied in film school, as a day job, I did casting, because I really love actresses and love to work with actresses and as a director, it was important for me to work a lot with actresses.

Liora Levi, who plays Carmela, the one that lives in the yacht, I met her through my script advisor who is a kayaker herself and she met [Liora] through kayaking, so she told me, “You have to meet this woman,” and I met her and she came with her whole background. It was amazing because I couldn’t imagine a character like this. I always say, I couldn’t invent her, so when I met her, it was like, “Wow, I want this character in my film and just stay the same. Don’t change.” There are some things that are changed for the character, but mostly she was just herself – and that’s the most difficult thing to act as yourself, I think. And she did it pretty well. But the other women, I just worked with each individual and tried to make it as close to her personality, but also to find it the places that she’s secure and not to impose something from her life, but to give her the freedom to use her life and also be protected by a mask of a character.

What was it like to get them in the room together?

Because we had only 12 days of shooting, we did it in a chronological order like a workshop. We shot a session a day, and we used two cameras in order to not have to do the takes again and again. We had really long takes, half an hour sometimes just starting from the [script] and then improvising, so it was like an exercise in letting go and believing in what you put inside of the room and make the magic begin. They had a [script] and they knew what the situation is going to be, but they were really free to just be themselves and to react. Also, the videos that they show, I wanted them to really shoot them, so they shot them themselves even it’s not their real life. And they watched [the videos] for the first time in the [scenes in the film], so they really reacted spontaneously as themselves.

When it’s a chronological shoot, does this go anywhere you might not expect when it takes on a life of its own?

Yeah, sometimes it did change. Almost all of the reactions were spontaneous. For instance, the political argument at the beginning of the film, it was a 40-minute take and in the end, you see two minutes, so it went to a lot of directions and I decided that I didn’t want it to be taking over the film. I didn’t really want the film to be political [where] it tells you what to think. I wanted it to be a political act of you being involved in the women’s life — Jewish and Arabic, and it was an understanding of that while shooting that this is the amount of time I want to give it in the film, but I wanted to leave room for the women themselves.

With a big ensemble piece like this, you give all the women their due, but it must be difficult to balance out. What was it like to edit?

Yeah, it’s really difficult. I had an amazing editor Neta Dvorkis, who understood really fast how this film should be edited because I thought at the beginning, maybe it should be very aggressive cuts between topics, but she understood it has to melt down. It’s not like you have a cut in life, so she understood the energy of the film real fast and she had a lot of footage in the editing room and it was like almost [looking at] a documentary in that way. We had really long takes and the film could go a lot of directions, but the work with her was amazing because she really knew where to take it.

What’s it been like seeing it with audiences?

It’s amazing because I’ve heard people say it’s a really intimate and small film, but people react really emotionally to it. There’s people that identify with certain characters, and because of COVID, somehow the film’s life is longer because it’s [played] a lot already, and now with the [Oscar] competition, it’s come alive again. But it’s in Israel now in cinemas for three months, so it’s amazing.

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