Times Will Tell

Podcast: ‘Cinema Sabaya’ director tells making-of story behind award-winning film

Orit Fouks Rotem describes to a sold-out Times of Israel screening the tales of developing, casting and filming her movie about Jewish and Arab women

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

This week’s Times Will Tell is a recording of a recent sold-out Times of Israel live event in Jerusalem, featuring an English language screening of the award-winning “Cinema Sabaya” film followed by a conversation with filmmaker Orit Fouks Rotem.

“Cinema Sabaya,” 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.

Fouks Rotem spoke with Times of Israel arts and culture editor Jessica Steinberg about the making of the film, her casting of mostly unknown actors who had a lot of freedom with the script and her goals in making this movie about women of different stripes.

As the Best Picture winner at September’s 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, a voting race that Fouks Rotem describes as well.

Fouks Rotem found out this week that her film did not make it through the first round of the nomination process.

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

Times of Israel: I’m very pleased to introduce Orit Fouks Rotem, the director of Cinema Sabaya, which won the Ophir Award, Israel’s Oscar for Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress for Joanna Said, Best Costumes and Best Casting. Cinema Sabaya is the underdog film that unexpectedly swept the awards, automatically making it Israel’s selection for consideration as the foreign film nominee at the 2023 Academy Awards in the US. It’s also Orit’s first full feature film, one that she worked on for eight years. She’s a graduate of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film School. And we considered showing this screening there in the new arts campus where they have a screening room that fits 120. That’s the largest one, but it wouldn’t have fit all of you. So it’s a good thing that we did it here at Yes Planet. It’s very good to have you here and we’re going to have a little conversation that we’ll also open to some questions from the audience. 

I know your mother was involved in the initial idea. So if you could tell us a little bit of the story of how it came about and how your mother was involved in it from the very start.

Orit Fouks Rotem: So thank you for coming and taking the time to watch the film. Yeah, so my mother is the advisor for women’s issues to the mayor of Hadera and she was a participant in a group like this, like you just saw, where she studied still photography with Arab women in the area of Hadera. And I just finished film school and was looking for an idea for a film and she told me about the course and I thought it a very interesting platform to discuss a lot of subjects through women and through women’s eyes. And then I started making those kinds of groups as research for a few years.

Tell us how you found your first group. That’s a great story.

So I wanted to make this kind of group and I didn’t really know what I was going to do, so I just went to Acre because someone told me, you should go to Acre.

There are a lot of Jewish and a lot of Arab women. I just walked in the streets and asked women if they wanted to study how to use video cameras. And they looked at me like I’m crazy. And then I went to this small shop and this woman there told me, go to this place. There are women meeting there once a week. It was like a shelter and I offered to teach them a course in video filmmaking and they said yes. And then I just went there once a week for a while and actually made up this course that you saw in the film. And on the way I thought, maybe it can be also a documentary. But then I understood that many of the things that came up there, I wouldn’t be able to use in a documentary. So I decided to go with my first plan and make a fiction film with a conflict for this character that I wrote based on me, of course. And that’s it.

Your mother helped get you started. Art imitates life. Life imitates art. You wrote the film, you were thinking about it as a documentary, but ended up making it into a feature film. Tell us a little bit about why you wanted those elements of truth and reality as opposed to full-on fiction.

For me, as a viewer, when I believe what I see, it touches me. And if I don’t believe it, I can understand it intellectually, but I don’t feel it. So for me, the most important thing to do is to make this believable. And that was the way I think, to make it believable. Because a lot of people ask me after the film if it’s a documentary or if it’s a fiction film, mostly outside of Israel, where they don’t know that I’ve been any of the actresses. And for me it’s the best compliment because it means that they weren’t sure if what they see is real life.

Talk about the actors a little bit. Dana Ivgy, the main character, plays Rona, the filmmaking teacher. She is a very well-known actress who actually was up for two of the awards in September. Both for this film and for another film. But she is the most well-known actor in the film. Some of the other characters had never acted before. Correct. And some of them just hadn’t really acted a lot. Can you tell us a little bit about the casting process, how you found these women, and who they are in real life?

So all of them are actresses except for Liora Levi who really lives on a boat and I found her through my script advisor, who told me I just have to meet this woman and take her for my film. And then I met her and wrote her in after that. So she is the only one who’s not really an actor.

Did you have to convince her?

It was her dream for a long time to be in the film. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if she can act and I also made auditions for her character. It’s really funny to think that someone else could be her. So yeah, she’s one of a kind and all the others have something to do with acting. Some of them had done commercials and for Joanna Said, this is her first film, she studied for a semester in the Hazuti, and she did some theater, but not in a professional way. All the rest are actresses, not so well-known, but Amal Murkus, who’s the singer, is really known.

You and I spoke about what you call the trick of the story, which is that most of the film takes place in this one room and the other scenes that we see are brought from the videos that the characters, the women, made from their own homes. So tell us a little bit about that, how you came to decide that that was going to be the setting and also how did you make those films?

So the film they’re bringing into class is mostly of the women themselves who shot the videos. I went with them to locations that we found and we brought actors like the one who cuts his fingernail is my landlord because in the same day there was an extra that was supposed to come and he didn’t show up. They thought, who can be her husband? They needed to have the location. We’re paying those people. So I just called him and luckily he didn’t cut his nails before and showed up. He’s Jewish. My landlord got money for this. He didn’t take it from the rent. And Yulia Tagil, the actor who plays Yelena, she really lived with her mother at that time and she’s divorced and it’s really her daughters in the film. So we used reality sometimes, but she’s different. We did a mix of the real-life and their true emotions.

Were they okay with that? Was that something you had to discuss?

As far as I discussed with each one of them, some of them didn’t want to bring, so it was their choice.

Some of them don’t share.

Some of them don’t share at all.  Yeah, like Nahed. I found that in every group I made, always there was one that didn’t share. And she also suspects Rona’s intentions so that also gives her a reason not to share.

Right. She’s suspicious the whole time about what’s really happening there.

Yes.

You told me that Dana Ivgy sometimes filmed.

She filmed all the way. She held the camera, right. And she kept it going. And in the end we decided to use her footage only in three parts of the film. But at the beginning I didn’t know. I thought maybe a lot of the film would be from her perspective.

What about the women as a group? The cast as a group, obviously the experience changed them in terms of making a film. For some of them, it was their first time. But did it affect them as a group? As a community of people together?

So yes, of course. It was really interesting to see they didn’t know each other before. We didn’t rehearse. We met twice in order to read the script together, so they will understand everything. But we didn’t do the scenes, we didn’t rehearse because I wanted to keep everything to the shooting days. We had twelve shooting days only.

Tell everyone where the room was, where you filmed it.

We filmed in Ben Shemen. It’s a boarding school. And we filmed in a place where Shimon Peres got married. It was just an empty hall. When we came down and we fixed everything, the curtains, the color of the walls, which was, like, abandoned.

In the weeks since the elections, we’re feeling the effects of what’s happening around us. When did you actually film this? In what year?

2019?

Right before COVID closed everything. Three months before COVID and what were you looking to bring to the table in terms of your Arab-Jewish subject matter? How deeply did you want to get into it? Did you get into subjects that you didn’t anticipate beforehand?

My main motivation was to bring deep and full feminine characters to the screen. It was more important for me than the conflict, in a way, because I saw many films about the conflict that tell you what to think. And I didn’t want it to be this kind of film. I wanted it to be more open. So the main thing will be the women themselves. And of course, when I go to Arab and Jewish women together, I have to put the concept on the table because it’s very not to do that. It’s there. So I did it in the beginning of the film, just to get rid of it and not to get rid of it, but to finish with it and to make room for these women. Because I think it’s even more political when you identify with the character that you will never be identified with, maybe before, and when you see the film and not to have an agenda that tells you what to think about it.

Did you have any reactions as you went through the editing process from your cast or from your editing team of putting more in, putting less in? How did you react to that?

I didn’t really open it to the cast, but, yeah, it was a dilemma how much to put in, because what you see in the film, the political part, took much longer in the shooting. We decided to put it there, but not let it take over everything. And Amal Murkus is a really political figure and it was important for me to be loyal to what she wanted and to give her a place to say what she thinks and also to the actor that plays Esti.

They felt like they represent all the Jewish and all the Arabs in Israel. So I tried to tell them it’s not true, but in a way it’s a bit true because I see when people see it outside of Israel, mostly they look at this like, as a representation of what is happening.

So you just came back from a road show in the States showing the film, working on exposing it in terms of the Oscar nomination. What was it like to show it to audiences out there? What were their reactions to this film that is presenting what is happening here, but not necessarily intending to.

A lot of questions were about the election and what’s going to be in Israel now. They reacted like in Israel, everyone has a character that he likes the most. And the questions were a lot about the work in progress and how we got this authenticity that there is in the film. So it wasn’t really different in that part.

Okay, so you are in this race to try and win the Oscar nomination.

Yes, we are at the voting which starts on the 12th.

Next week.

Next week.

No pressure.

No pressure. If you know any Academy members, please tell them to see the film. It’s amazing how many people know Academy members. It’s a really small world.

Tell us a little bit about the process.

There are 93 films from all over the world. From the 12th to the 15th, they’re voting for a short list of 15, and whoever gets on to the shortlist, competes to be in the top five, and then you’re a nominee.

Each Academy member receives, I believe, eight films. And you can vote to rate 15 films. It’s supposed to be equal, but I don’t know how it really works. It’s a lot about money, I see. And big companies like Netflix that run the films can have more impact. And the Jordanian film has a lot of attention due to our government, thanks to them.

Right. So, of course, you want this nomination, but at the same time, how does it actually feel to be in this place? In other words, it is your first feature film. It did do incredibly well. It’s a film that really catches people emotionally and through the vibrancy of what we see on the screen. Where are you right now in terms of the Cinema Sabaya effect on yourself? Where do you want to go with all of this besides obviously wanting a nomination? That would be pretty nice.

Yes. In a way, all the time you want more and more. In a way, I want it to end, have a good memory, and keep going to the next film. Okay.

Well, we want to see what your next film is. Thank you very much, Orit Fouks Rotem.

Thank you.

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