“TEL AVIV ON FIRE”
A Film About a TV Show
Director and co-writer Sameh Zoabi brings us a look at soap operas and an entrenched hardline political divide, on the West Bank of Israel. A thirtysomething slacker, Salam (Kais Nashef) gets a job as a production assistant and then stumbles into becoming the head writer on his uncle’s evening soap, “Tel Aviv on Fire”.
The TV show follows the romantic affairs of Palestinian spy Miral, who goes by the Israeli alias of Rachel (Lubna Azabal); her Palestinian comrade/lover; and the Israeli general she seduces to nab military plans right before the 1967 Six-Day War.
Salam 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 the demands of a military officer, Assi (Yaniv Biton), to make sure the TV Israeli officer becomes more assertive and winds up with Rachel and Salam discovers, everyone has an opinion about who Rachel should end up with.
The soap is based a telenovela set in 1967 on the cusp of the Six-Day War. It’s clear that Salam got the job because of his uncle. Cinematographer Laurent Brunet shows us Tel Aviv with heightened colors, gauzy lensing and deliberately sharp camera moves. This overblown look is perfect for the pro-Palestinian melodrama. When Salam steps in to help with a bit of pronunciation trouble, he finds himself in an argument about the word “explosive” in the script and then he is, because of that, moved to the writers crew. –
Suddenly elevated to the scripting crew, the panicking 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. Assi‘s wife is a fan of the show, which noticeably has a following on both sides of the border and Assi wants to be able to show off by giving her juicy titbits of the plot. He takes a look at the script, only to be horrified by its content and 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.
Salam desperately tries to find a compromise, all the while showing how the script acrobatics and attitudes represent a microcosm of 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 is multi-layered and crafty and Zoabi doesn’t forget the heart of the matter; a sort of odd couple bromance to brew between Salam and Assi. His real achievement is in capturing the people rather than simply the politics.
The director is conscious of and careful about the ongoing issues about the Israelis and the Palestinians, and balances the humor and the narrative perfectly well. Here Palestinians and Israelis must live together regardless of the past and it is not an easy thing to do. Salam tries to get his head above water and get his old flame back in the process but making a series is a hard thing to do and is a lot of work. Nobody seems to be on the same page. Salam tries make everybody happy and if you want to know if he succeeds, you will have to see the movie.