Interview: Orit Fouks Rotem on Israeli Oscar Contender ‘Cinema Sabaya’

In Orit Fouks Rotem’s Cinema Sabaya, a group of Israeli and Arab women come together to participate in a filmmaking workshop exploring their personal stories. Inspired by the lives of real women, this poignant film-within-a-film won the top Ophir Award to become Israel’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature. As the film sets out to achieve its Oscar aspirations, Awards Radar recently interviewed with Rotem, to talk about the inspiration and motivations behind the filmmaking. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

Shane Slater: What was the motivation behind this film?

Orit Fouks Rotem: Well, the idea came to me when my mother used to be a participant in a group like that in the film. She works in the municipality, and she works as an advisor for women’s issues to the mayor. And this was part of a workshop she did herself. And that gave me the idea for this platform of a women who observed their life through cameras. I started doing my research by doing those group meetings myself. And just being the instructor of these groups gave me all the ideas for Rona’s character. And also, I met really inspiring women that gave me the ideas and their stories.

SS: Did you do a lot of rehearsals? Did you try to replicate the workshop format?

OFR: We didn’t rehearse at all. We did like two meetings for everybody just so that it wouldn’t be very strange for them on the first day, but we just did the reading of the script. And I worked with Rona – Dana Ivgy, the main actress – basically just reading the script and talking about it, not rehearsing it. And everything happens for the first time on set. We shot in chronological order for 12 days only. So we did it like a workshop session a day. And we shot with two cameras in order to make it real and not have to make it again and again.

We didn’t do takes, we just started from the text, and then they could improvise on it. So there was like sometimes 30-minute takes and sometimes things that we didn’t expect happened. I really wanted to keep it real and just to be in the moment.

SS: The film explains the feminine meaning of Sabaya, which made me think about the history of the “women’s picture” in Hollywood. Is there a similar notion of the “women’s picture” in Israel and how does this film fit into that tradition?

OFR: I think this is the first film that has just women in it. I mean, men are only from the perspective of a woman or a woman. So I think this is something new. I don’t remember seeing a film in Israel that is just women. You know, I saw Brainwashed by Nina Menkes. It really gave me an idea of what is feminine filmmaking. It’s just the point of view, it can be on men also. It doesn’t have to be on women, but through the eyes of women. So in Israel, we have a lot of female directors now and hopefully it will have more and more. We’re getting there, but still, most of the directors are men, and the films are from their perspective.

SS: The film explores ideas surrounding ethics and intention as a filmmaker. Is there a philosophy that guides how you make your films and what you want the audience to get out of them?

OFR: I have a lot of issues with filmmaking myself, of course. I’m doing mostly fiction, but also in fiction, you use people in a good and a bad way. I mean, you have to really be careful with what you’re doing because it’s people’s life, you know? In documentary films, it’s more dangerous. When I thought about making the documentary and thought about making a film based on true stories of real women, I, I had a dilemma. How much can I expose? And how much am I using their stories in order to promote myself? But I understood that my main motivation was just to tell their stories, and to be like a voice of the stories that they wanted to tell.

And that’s why I decided to actually make it a fiction film because then they’re safe. And of course, I got permission to use the stories, but really changed it. It’s not like someone can recognize herself in the film. But in every film I make, I think about that, and I’m trying to avoid exploitation of women or my subjects. I’m thinking of the best interest for them as well, while doing that.

SS: Your film is also touching on the ongoing tension between Israel and Palestine. That’s such a sensitive topic. How do you navigate that?

OFR: You know, a lot of Israeli films talk about the conflict, because we live in it. It’s not something you can avoid. But I didn’t want it to be like the obvious political film that tells you what to think. I wanted to put it on the table from the beginning. I put Arabs and Jews in the same room, so I wanted it to be there. But I didn’t want it to take over all the film. I wanted it to be about the women and about real stories of women.

I think the political act in this film is just by giving you the possibility to know women deeply. And not to even remember who is the Arab or who is the Jew. Just to get to know them and give them space. It’s a political act for me, because I don’t remember a lot of films were Arab women had roles that are more than just being a nurse, or being someone whose wife, you know? I wanted to give them respect and give them the front stage. And so this is what was important for me more than the conflict and talking about the conflict.

SS: Cinema Sabaya is Israel’s Oscar submission and Israel has been nominated so many times and hasn’t won yet. Is there any pressure surrounding that?

OFR: Israel hasn’t won yet, and I really hope we change that. No pressure, but we just want to do the best we can. So it’s not pressure, but we feel we have a chance, because we think the subject is important. And we feel the film touches people. But we are really in competition with big films with Netflix behind them and Sony behind them. So I understand the politics and because it’s a lot about money. I was shocked how much it’s about money. This campaign thing, it’s crazy. But we’re doing our best. And hopefully, we’ll get there and be the gym that gets to the top.


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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