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Monday 2 September 2019

Tel Aviv on Fire, Film, Israel 2018, directed by Sameh Zoabi, 8* out of 10

With the multi-award-winning “Tel Aviv on Fire”, Israeli-Palestinian-Arab writer and director Sameh Zoabi brings us a funny, intelligent and most enjoyable comedy/farce against the absurd background of the multi-layered relationship between the Palestinians living in Jerusalem and West of the Jordan and Jewish Israelis. For security reasons, Israeli soldiers interfere sometimes reluctantly sometimes over-enthusiastically, always significantly in the lives of the Palestinians living in East- Jerusalem and on the Westbank of the Jordan. That interference is largely unwelcome, but after more than 50 years, can lead to unexpected areas of reluctant cooperation. It has great potential not only for drama and tragedy but also for irony and humour. And there is plenty of irony and humour to be found here.

Salem (Kais Nashef), a Jerusalemite Palestinian has obtained a minor job on the Palestinian Soap opera “Tel Aviv on Fire” through literal nepotism: his uncle Bassem (Nadim Sawalha) is the producer. The soap opera is a fictional story playing in 1967 about a Palestinian woman, played by the French Arab actress Tala (Lubna Azabal) who pretends to be an Israeli Jewess and tries seduce an Israeli general (Yousef Sweid) played by a Palestinian Arab actor and have him reveal Israel’s secret military plans. Salem’s excellent knowledge of Hebrew makes him the go-to guy for authentic Hebrew dialogue between them. The soap opera is a hit in the Palestinian territories and Israel particularly with the female demographic. When Salem tries to verify one of his Hebrew expressions (something like sex bomb) at an Israeli checkpoint, the bomb part, gets him an unintended interview with the checkpoint’s commanding officer, Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton) and lets him believe that he is a writer on “Tel Aviv on Fire”. Bored with his checkpoint command, and convinced of his yet untried talents as a creative in the media industry, Assi coerces Salem into giving him influence on the development of the plot and the character of the Israeli General, initially to impress his wife and her girlfriends. Salem finds himself between the rock of the Israeli checkpoint officer who wants to be a screenwriter and the hard place of satisfying the Arab financiers of the soap opera he works on. 

In the 21st century we have become so used to the fact that reality mirrors the most unlikely soap opera plots. Moreover, the actors who are believed to be their fictional characters by their viewers are becoming the most successful politicians in elections. Therefore, it is almost a relief when a comedy farce comes along where it is fiction which subtly chimes with reality and not the other way round. 

The screenplay for Tel Aviv on Fire is written by a Palestinian-Israeli graduate of Tel Aviv and Columbia University Sameh Zoabi and Dan Kleinman a professor teaching in the Columbia University Screenwriting Program. Here is a film about a soap opera which is being developed against the ever more misunderstood and often absurd context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its thesis is that the psychological and practical adaptations of Israelis and Palestinians to their situation can be seen not only as drama and tragedy but also as giving rise to irony and humour on both sides. And you the viewer can decide about the plausibility of that thesis.

It is, of course, easier to see the humour in the situation if you are a Palestinian-Arab with Israeli citizenship or a professor at Columbia University living in New York than if you are a Palestinian Arab living West of the Jordan in the permanent limbo of a situation which is marked by restrictions on travel as well as delay and potential humiliation at checkpoints. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv of Fire is a competently directed if a bit messy comedy which often hits the spot. Strong performances by Kais Nashef and Yaniv Biton as well as Lubna Azabal a Belgian actress with Moroccan and Spanish roots playing a Palestinian French actress in turn playing a Palestinian woman spy pretending to be the Israeli Jewish lover of an Israeli General before the 1967 six-day war. Confused? You won’t be once you have seen this very enjoyable and witty comedy, which richly deserves the international awards it has already received. Warmly recommended.

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