Sameh Zoabi – the director of the much-praised and very funny new comedy about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Tel Aviv on Fire, which tells the story of a guy who writes for a telenovela in Ramallah – knows what it’s like when your life is like a soap opera.
It turns out that being an Arab director in Israel involves a great deal of drama.
“A Palestinian who grows up in Israel and makes films here has a lot of responsibility – people read things into your work,” said the director, who grew up near Nazareth, in a phone interview from New York. “The Israelis always have to check if your film is anti-Israeli. The Palestinians say, ‘Why did he take money from the Israeli film funds?’ People come in with a judgmental eye from both sides... You have to find your voice, and you can’t try to please everybody.”
Tel Aviv on Fire is both the title of Zoabi’s latest film and the name of the soap opera that is the focus of the plot. The over-the-top soap, which is filmed in the West Bank and set on the eve of the Six Day War, is about a beautiful Palestinian spy, Manal (Lubna Azabal) who is in love with her handler but is ordered to pose as an Israeli woman and seduce an Israeli general (Yousef “Joe” Sweid). The general falls in love with her and she may be falling in love with him, a love triangle that both Israeli and Arab viewers find riveting.
The hero of the movie is Salam (Kais Nashif), a shy guy who is a Hebrew dialogue coach on the soap. When he is stopped at a checkpoint, he discovers that the Israeli commander, Assi (Yaniv Biton), has a wife who is obsessed with Tel Aviv on Fire, and this Israeli wants to get involved in helping to determine the action of the soap. Through an unlikely series of events, Salam actually becomes a writer on the soap, and gets heavy-handed guidance from Assi, as well as from Palestinians.
The soap becomes a vehicle through which everyone projects his or her feelings about love, life and the conflict. What is most impressive is that Zoabi seamlessly mixes the satire about the political situation with a parody of the universal conventions of a soap opera.
“Humor for me is a basic instinct,” said Zoabi. “This is how I grew up, as a Palestinian in a small village near Nazareth. The humor was, and still is, a way of survival for us. You know, we don’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘Oh, my God, life is terrible, we are second-class citizens, Netanyahu doesn’t want us here, no one wants us here’... We wake up and we find ways to keep each other happy and smiling. So when I wanted to make movies, it was almost like a natural growth of the way I grew up, my village, my family and my surroundings. It wasn’t labored. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I want to make a comedy about the conflict.’ That wasn’t my plan. My plan was to tell a story and be genuine to the journey that my main character goes through, and then the rest falls into place. You know, the soap opera falls in place, the show falls into place, all of these are things I grew up with that start to collect themselves in my work.”
When he came up with the idea of using a soap opera to satirize the political situation, he thought, “Oh, my God, that would be an amazing film to make, about a guy who’s trapped in this political reality and he’s looking for his voice.”
GROWING UP in a large family, with a father who was a farmer, Zoabi got hooked on movies watching the Egyptian movies on television on Friday afternoons and Egyptian soap operas with his mother, “who was in control of the remote, and you really could not watch anything else.” His sisters, who were movie and music fans, had albums devoted to their favorite actors and musicians, such as Elvis Presley. “I would stare at these albums for hours,” he said. “I wanted to be part of this world.”
He worked for two years to earn the money to study film and literature at Tel Aviv University, and then received a Fulbright scholarship to study filmmaking at Columbia University in New York. Although his parents were supportive of his ambition to make movies, they didn’t quite understand what was involved.
“After I got the Fulbright, that was a turning point,” Zoabi said. “My father realized that this was all a little bit bigger than he had thought, that there was some kind of future.”
That became even more clear after his short film, Quiet Time, was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and won awards all over the world. His first feature – Man Without a Cell Phone, which was released in 2010 – was a comedy about a young Israeli-Arab man who is overjoyed when he learns that his village is getting a cell phone tower, so that he will finally have good enough reception to call the girls he likes, but then feels conflicted when he learns the tower will destroy his father’s olive grove. Eventually, he helps organize a protest against the new technology.
The absurdity of that situation is amplified in Tel Aviv on Fire, where Salam is pressured to write the plot of the soap opera based on the Israeli officer’s whims, or risk being detained at the checkpoint.
Zoabi wondered how audiences around the world would respond to the film: “Not many people believed a comedy like this could go to a major film festival, people thought it was too complex for audiences, that they wouldn’t get it.” But when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last fall, “an audience of 1,500 were laughing and clapping. They were clapping for 10 minutes afterwards.”
Essentially an optimist, Zoabi believes, “A big part of the problem is that we are all in our bubbles. If people mixed and liked each other, we wouldn’t have a conflict. We have more in common than people want to think.”
The role of comedy, according to Zoabi, is to get people to look at the world in new ways. “People are jaded with the reality. If you want to see how a Palestinian is treated at a checkpoint, you can just Google it. I wanted to get people to look at things in a new way.”
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