Cinema Sabaya - Women Under the Influence. GAIFF CRITICS WORKSHOP REVIEW

Israel's international feature entry for last year’s Academy Awards, Orit Fouks Rotem's Cinema Sabaya embraces a quasi-documentary approach to explore what it means to be a woman in a multi-religious but hardly multicultural country: Israel. In the film, eight women of Arab and Jewish descent take part in a filmmaking workshop hosted by a young director. For all their differences in background, religious beliefs, and age, the participants all share the same gendered struggles.

Israel might well be home to the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—yet its society, as Cinema Sabaya painfully reminds us, is still rooted in patriarchal values. Rotem’s film constructs a microenvironment in which women can be free to dream, act, and think as they please.

So naturalistic is the film’s approach you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for an actual documentary. Cinema Sabaya frames its characters through static medium shots, as if capturing an AA meeting, until Rotem shifts gears, and her film adopts a Dogma 95 aesthetics, favoring handheld camerawork. Even so, the exchanges, much like the film’s idealistic message, feel repetitive and trite.

Cinema Sabaya might remind you of Sarah Polley’s Oscar-winning Women Talking (2022), another talk-heavy and female-centered symposium. Different in scope and settings as they are, both films invite us to watch their characters grow up, as it were, and muster the strength to take individualistic, sometimes controversial and transgressive actions.

Levan Tskhovrebadze