“Tel Aviv On Fire”
A Film About a Film
Making a film about the making of a film, or in this case a TV show, is structurally difficult. When making. Film about the making of a film, a balance must be found and it is often difficult to do so. Director Sameh Zoabi was able to do so as he presents alternate realities by using them go explore life in present day Israel. He brings us a farcical comedy with a disarming hug and a surprising dash of romance.
Salam (Kais Nashif) is our main character and he seems, at first, to be more hapless than huggable. He is a Palestinian living in Israel, working as a production intern on the flamboyant soap opera “Tel Aviv On Fire” with a telenovela set in 1967 on the cusp of the Six-Day War. It’s clear he’s mainly there at his producer uncle’s indulgence. He is also trying to reconnect with old flame Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi). This is a pro-Palestinian melodrama, which stars Tala (Lubna Azabal) as femme fatale Arab woman Manal, who takes on the Jewish name ‘Rachel’ in order to set a honeytrap for Israeli military commander Yehuda (Yousef Sweid).
When Salam steps in to help with a spot of pronunciation trouble, he finds himself in an argument about the word “explosive” in the script – just one of many spot-on choices that Zoabi and co-writer Dan Kleinman go on to use for full effect, Tala takes a shine to his ‘writing’ skills. Suddenly elevated to the scripting crew, Salam finds an unexpected ally when he is hauled in for questioning at one of his daily journeys through an Israeli checkpoint by army commander Assi (Yaniv Biton). Assi, whose wife is a fan of the show (that has a following on both sides of the border) really wants to be able to show off by giving her juicy titbits of the plot, and takes a look at the script, only to be horrified by its content. He quickly sets about advising Salam on how to make Yehuda a more dashing prospect and, while this initially gets the Palestinian out of a tight spot, he’s soon caught between the plot aspirations of the pro-Jewish Assi and the pro-Palestine backers.
Zoabi amps up the absurdity levels as Salam tries desperately to find compromise, all the while showing how the script acrobatics and attitudes represent a microcosm for the wider societal strife, where any show of empathy for either side might be branded “anti-Semitic” or “Zionist” or where a wrong word at a checkpoint can lead to a day’s lost work. The material is treated with a soft touch but finds time to offer comment on the way that attitudes and conflict can be passed down from generation to generation, letting neither side off the hook.
The story has several layers but the heart of the film is always there— an odd couple bromance between Salam and Assi. The film’s real achievement is in capturing the people rather than simply the politics, such as the way that Assi’s desire to change the commander into a romantic hero is at least as much to do with impressing his wife by proxy as it is connected to dogma. Salim lives in Jerusalem, but the show is taped in Ramallah. To get to work on the West Bank, he has to go through a check point, and he can only do so if he agrees to Assi’s demands. This Israeli film gives us a unique portrayal of Palestinian-Israeli tensions that is marked by dramatic pretense and cold humor. With its provocative title and brilliant and humorous narrative, the film gives a new meaning to the comedy genre.
Indirectly, the film also shows that the younger generation is burdened by the suffering of the past generations and that no matter who the aggressor is, Palestinians and Israelis still have to live together, regardless of how each side views the past. Just like with the characters of Salam and Assi, there is always something that can bring people together.