By Liam Lacey
A sardonic backstage comedy about a fictional Palestinian soap opera, Tel Aviv on Fire earns bonus points for degree of difficulty. To find comedy against the backdrop of the bloody Palestine-Israeli conflict takes some chutzpah… or alwaqaha, as they say in Arabic. Partly financed in Israel, the film was directed and co-written by Palestinian Sameh Zoabi. Deft in its playful mockery of the broad acting and absurd plot twists of the soap genre, it somehow maintains a genial tone, despite references to terrorism, war, and daily humiliations of the occupation.
The title is taken from the soap opera at the centre of the story, a Ramallah-produced TV show, set in the months preceding the 1967 war, and purportedly widely enjoyed by both Israelis and Palestinians. The story follows the exploits of a sexy woman spy, Manal, posing as a Tel Aviv baker named Rachel to seduce an Israeli general, Yehuda, and convey military plans to her resistance-fighter lover, Marwan. The soap opera’s star, Tala (Lubna Azabal) is a French-based actress who speaks little Arabic and less Hebrew.
The protagonist is a Palestinian slacker named Salam (Kais Nashef) who, through his producer uncle, has landed a part-time job as an onset Hebrew coach. Salam lives in Jerusalem, which means that, both going to and from work, he has to pass through an Israeli checkpoint. One day, after a verbal slip about “explosive,” he gets hauled into the checkpoint commander’s office for interrogation and Salam inflates his job to that of a series’ writer. The checkpoint’s commander Assi (Yaniv Biton) has a wife who’s a big fan of Tel Aviv on Fire.
Soon, Assi starts leaning on Salam to make changes to the show if he wants to keep getting through the checkpoints to work. And Salam starts getting his script ideas from the IDF officer, who is trying to impress his wife by presenting the Israeli military in a heroic light.
Eventually, by offering unexpected script ideas and insinuating himself with the vain star’s good graces, Sameh is promoted to writer. All this jibes with Sameh’s own attempts to develop a romantic relationship with his ex-girlfriend Mariam (Maïsa Abd Elhadi) who previously rejected him as a bum, coasting on his producer uncle’s reputation. When she sees their conversations reflected on the TV screen, she starts to look at him with new appreciation.
Things get complicated when Assi, the guard, pressures to have Rachel actually fall in love with the general, dispensing with her Palestinian boyfriend. Salam is strained with the obligations of pleasing both the Palestinian backers and Assi’s demands to make the Israeli general a dashing romantic figure.
Performances are broad but deft and Nashef, as Salam — who took a best actor prize at last year’s Venice film festival — does a good job as the everyman trying to make the best of the jam he’s in. The send-up of the soap opera style, from garish lighting to hammy acting, is fun even in translation.
On a deeper level, the conceit here — that Israel and Palestine share a lot of culture, from hummus to television, while being arbitrarily divided by walls and checkpoints — never stops feeling a bit too glib, no matter how well-intended.
Tel Aviv on Fire. Directed by Sameh Zoabi. Written by Dan Kleinman and Zameh Zoabi. Starring Kais Nashef, Lubna Azabal and Yaniv Biton, Maïsa Abd Elhadi. Opens August 2 at Toronto’s Canada Square Theatre and August 9 in Montreal.