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‘Cinema Sabaya’ director hopes to repeat film’s underdog success on road to Oscars

Orit Fouks Rotem never expected her film ‘Cinema Sabaya’ to sweep the Ophir Awards, but now finds herself seeking a chance to vie for Best Foreign Film at the 2023 Academy Awards

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The cast and crew of 'Cinema Sabaya' pose with their Ophir Awards after winning Best Picture and other prizes, September 18, 2022. (courtesy)
The cast and crew of 'Cinema Sabaya' pose with their Ophir Awards after winning Best Picture and other prizes, September 18, 2022. (courtesy)

The Ophir-winning “Cinema Sabaya” is currently in the race to earn a spot as a first-round nominee for the 2023 Academy Awards, a challenge for a small budget film that surprised everyone with its awards sweep.

“I never expected to win the Ophir,” said writer and director Orit Fouks Rotem, who won for best director.

The movie was the clear winner in the September awards ceremony, taking Best Film, Best Supporting Actress for Joanna Sayid, Best Costumes and Casting.

The film, starring Dana Ivgy, tells the story of Arab and Jewish female municipal workers who take part in a video workshop, documenting their own lives and viewing each others’ — challenging their beliefs in order to get to know one another.

As the Best Picture winner in the Ophir Awards, Israel’s version of the Oscars, “Cinema Sabaya” automatically became Israel’s selection for consideration as a foreign film nominee at the 2023 Academy Awards in the United States.

But that’s just the beginning.

Fouks Rotem and the “Cinema Sabaya” team are now in a race to try and earn that nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Like all other countries in the race, Israel submitted the movie by the November 1 deadline.

Members of the International Feature Film Preliminary Committee then views eligible submissions in the category and votes by secret ballot to produce a shortlist of 15 films. It’s not a given that all committee members watch all films.

A separate International Feature Film Nominating Committee then views the 15 shortlisted films and votes by secret ballot to determine the category’s final five nominees.

“There are 90 films vying and 15 move up a notch in the first round,” said Fouks Rotem. “It’s luck of the draw if members initially see the film.”

‘Cinema Sabaya’ creator Orit Fouks Rotem (courtesy)

Filmmakers like Fouks Rotem often do road shows in the US, screening their films, working with public relations firms and taking out ads in industry publications such as Variety.

A small budget production such as “Cinema Sabaya” doesn’t have much money to work with, said Fouks Rotem, noting that full-page ads in Variety cost some $20,000.

“We’re coming up from the bottom, but I hope it’s like at the Ophir Awards,” she said.

This first-time film director worked on “Cinema Sabaya” for eight years, basing it on a filmmaking course for women that she had taught three times.

Her mother had participated in a course very similar to the one that’s featured in the film, and when Fouks Rotem, then a student at Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, heard about the concept, she “felt a ping” and said to herself, there’s a story here.

She loved the “trick” of the movie, where the action all takes place in one room, but the stories of each protagonist come to life from the videos they make of their lives, showing all of their hopes and dreams.

“Cinema Sabaya” will be screened with English subtitles on Tuesday, December 6, at Jerusalem’s Yes Planet, followed by a conversation with Fouks Rotem and Times of Israel arts and culture editor Jessica Steinberg.

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