‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ sizzles

With Tel Aviv on Fire, Sameh Zoabi pulls it off, or nearly pulls it off – his film is going to alienate many, both Jews and Arab, but people who are less doctrinaire will find it funny and touching.

‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Tel Aviv on Fire’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anyone who tries to make a comedy about the absurdities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to walk such a fine line, it’s a nearly impossible feat. With every attempt at humor, the director risks offending everyone.
But with Tel Aviv on Fire, Sameh Zoabi pulls it off, or nearly pulls it off – his film is going to alienate many, both Jews and Arabs, by its very premise, but people who are less doctrinaire will find it funny and touching. It tells the story of a nebbish guy whose life gets jump-started – personally and professionally – when he becomes the writer for a TV soap opera produced in Ramallah. The central conceit is that both Jews and Arabs are glued to this telenovela and that everyone projects their own dreams and visions onto it.
Going deeper, it’s about how we all need romance and how sometimes we need it more than we need to be loyal to a political principle.
Salam (Kais Nashif), the hero, is a quiet guy who lives in Jerusalem with his mother but works in Ramallah on the soap opera, Tel Aviv on Fire, as a Hebrew dialogue coach. The over-the-top soap is set on the eve of the Six Day War and the story-within-the-story has flashes of the extravagance of Pedro Almodovar. Tel Aviv on Fire is about a beautiful Palestinian spy, Manal (Lubna Azabal, who starred in such films as Strangers), who is in love with her handler, Marwan (Ashraf Farah). In a plot torn from old movies such as Hitchcock’s Notorious, he won’t marry her until she completes one more assignment, seducing General Yehuda Edelman (Yousef “Joe” Sweid of False Flag, The Writer and many other television shows and movies), so she can find out Israel’s secret plans. But as she takes on a Jewish identity – Rachel, who runs a French patisserie – she seems to be falling in love with Yehuda.
At this point, we move out of the world of the soap and Salam’s narrative takes center stage, as he is detained at a checkpoint for cracking a joke in slangy Hebrew. Coming face to face with the checkpoint commander, Assi (Yaniv Biton from The Jews are Coming), who looks over the copy of the Tel Aviv on Fire script Salam had with him in his car with suspicion, Salam finds himself saying he is a writer on the show. Assi’s wife is addicted to Tel Aviv on Fire, and he starts advising Salam on what to write, according to what his wife says or what he wants her to see. In a rather convoluted turn of events, Salam actually becomes a writer on the show and has no clue about how the story should continue. He gets one set of advice from the more political Palestinian senior staff (including Salim Dau of Avanti Popolo) and other suggestions – or commands – from Assi. As he tries to please everyone, he finds himself the object of unwanted affection from Tala, the actress who plays Rachel, and he tries desperately to win over Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a beautiful doctor he has fallen in love with. Laëtitia Eïdo, who played Dr. Shirin on Fauda, has only a small part but gets one good line.
Is any of this basic setup – an Arab and an IDF officer bonding over the upcoming developments on a soap opera – remotely credible when you give it a cold, hard look? No, of course not. But this does not take away from the charm and wit of the story, which is really about everyone’s hunger for escapism.
What further elevates the story is the wonderful acting – Nashif is the standout (he won an acting award at the Venice Film Festival), but everyone is terrific – and Zoabi’s affection for his characters. Like Francois Truffaut, who would create a gallery of eccentrics in a world without real villains and let them loose on screen, Zoabi presents characters we enjoy spending time with. While the movie stumbles at times as the complications of the plot play out, overall it’s an enjoyable ride, which will make you wish that life were actually like this.