Cinema Sabaya, Israel’s Oscar submission this year, confronts the political in a manner both predictable and insidious. Let’s address the latter accusation first, as it comes across with greater weight than its comparatively quotidian counterpart. We understand that normalization occupies such insidious space, but the processes are orchestrated as to project totality across entire spectra of existence: the day-to-day becomes an inherent and prerequisite facet of this insidiousness, in which the material is abstracted into theory and identity becomes a quantified commodity in relation to the state. In short, processes of normalization have clear precursors in neoliberalization. It’s in this neoliberalization that Cinema Sabaya pillows itself, finding interpassive comfort in liberal reflexivity, and celebrating its diversity in the face of a continuum of violence under occupation.
Orit Fouks Rotem’s debut feature seeks to organize a very succinct messiness; specifically, that belonging to a group of Arab and Jewish women gathering with their young filmmaking instructor to learn what a camera’s gaze might bring them: expression, profundity, sovereignty, or nothing at all. The drama jumps from week to week, observing only the women’s classes, eliding the full lives of the characters in favor of their group dynamic and naïvely hoping that their togetherness will unveil truths that any individual life here might be hiding. It’s a frustrating conceit, predictable in its idealistic retreat into individual differences without doing the work to establish them in any substantive way, as everyone present represents little more than a broad archetype. What’s most amusing is that in the press material’s Q&A, the director notes her actors’ unhappiness with their roles, discerning them as mere “representations.” Rotem speaks further, disagreeing with this opinion, but if the film is evidence, it seems that its entire construct proves the performers’ point.
A question one loves to hear filmmakers answer is this: “What would you like audiences to take away from the film?” or perhaps “Whom did you make this film for?” These are broad, seemingly imprecise, and not particularly insightful inquiries, but it nonetheless takes a very assured filmmaker to answer them without leaving hints as to their indecision and/or ideological pitfalls. To answer these questions is to extend one’s desired relationship to their audience: it is unexpectedly a moment of profound opportunity to regard both one’s positionality and privilege. Rotem’s answer, found via ScreenDaily’s interview, speaks to vaguish platitudes of “hope” and “optimism.” She elaborates that “the situation in Israel is really not optimistic. The hope is in the people, not just in women but also in men.” Such gesturing is facile — if it’s only pronounced via the generalized characterizations in Cinema Sabaya, then we are bereft of any confrontation of the very conditions that cultivate this lack of optimism.
One scene early on flirts callously with the political tensions ever-present under occupation; it dives headfirst into a perspective of total ignorance and cuts short any discourse thereafter. These tensions are then quietly compartmentalized, ensuring that a curated complexity comes to the fore, one that reaffirms the filmmaker’s meager philosophical biases. It’s really rather discouraging to be confronted by so many works of art that are so blatantly regurgitations of a filmmaker’s narrow perspective, not only in this but an overwhelming majority of films that seamlessly glide through industrial circuitry. Seeing the infinite capacities of a medium as multifaceted and complex as the cinematic one reduced to meandering liberalism bodes tragedy — artistically, certainly, but more importantly one of ideological kindling, a refusal of meaningful introspection.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 6.