“Tel Aviv on Fire” — go — now!
Don’t let your politics (or lack thereof) or the “foreign” stamp on this film stop you. It won’t matter if you can’t speak Hebrew or Arabic or French, you will still understand every character and every minute of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival winner.
“Tel Aviv on Fire” is set in the seemingly intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and superficially that’s what it’s about, a deliciously unexpected faux drama, real comedy about how much we’re alike, whether we want to admit it or not.
The politically woke folks in Seattle may have accepted it expecting a political statement, but that’s not what it is or why it won or why you should see it. It won because it’s an incredibly well executed film, surprising, subtly written and convincingly acted. That’s why you should see it.
Samah Zouabi’s screenplay stitches together multiple levels of meaning and reality. It is “The Last Action Hero” of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, a show within a show within a wider reality, and Zouabi brings it off so seamlessly even critics miss the multiple meanings.
“Tel Aviv on Fire” is the show within the show. It’s the film and the subject of the film. It’s a contemporary soap opera about life in Israel, and a period soap opera about the months leading up to 1967's Six Day War.
The Six Day War is history, and while the film skips the details, it showcases the results, an Israel divided into areas Israelis control and areas they merely occupy, areas separated by strong, competent barriers and weak, incompetent people. If the period soap whitewashes the Arab view of the war, the contemporary soap doesn’t whitewash today’s reality. It solves no problems at the same time it resolves them all. It leaves no characters better off at the same time it fulfills their dreams. It is so deftly written it drags the audience between its layers of reality seamlessly. One moment you’re in one soap, the next moment your in the other, without tiring of either.
If you’ve not been to Israel and can’t go, but have always wondered how sworn enemies deal with each other on a daily basis, see this film. It’s a humorous, but amazingly accurate portrait of today’s Israel.
There are no flashbacks, and Zouabi spent no time on backstory, but makes such good use of our time that before we realize it, we know exactly who Salam, our hero is; an Arab Israeli man-child, living in Jerusalem and going nowhere, wasting his life. Soon afterward we understand his uncle, Bassam knows it too, and out of a sense of obligation or family pride has decided to pluck him out of his stupor.
Bassam runs Israel’s most popular soap opera, “Tel Aviv on Fire”, and does it competently. He’s gotten along without Salam this far, and could have continued getting along with him, so we realize Salam’s new job is a last act of charity, and Zoubi’s set us up to expect him to fail.
Salam fetches coffee and props and scripts, and watches rehearsals and mostly stays out of the way until, on his first day he unexpectedly inflates his position by stopping a rehearsal and recommending a dialogue change for Tala, the leading lady. The event is purely serendipitous. His change to an otherwise acceptable line serves no purpose, but appeals to Tala’s inner feminist, and when she insists on using Salam’s line, much to the irritation of Maisa, the screenwriter, she cements Salam’s future.
We’re glad he’s made it through his first day, but we’re still preoccupied with Salam’s personal and professional problems, and that’s why we let our guards down as he makes what would for most of us be an uneventful drive home.
Not for Salam. This is Israel.
His offhand remark about “explosive” dialogue at the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem grabs a surprised Israeli soldier’s attention, and a few minutes later Salam finds himself telling an Israeli Defense Force Captain named Assi that he’s not a terrorist, he’s a screenwriter. (Zouabi misses a chance here, to have Assi comment on the close relationship between terrorists and screenwriters. Maybe next time.)
Salam extricates himself by claiming “explosive” was just a line of dialogue for his show, “Tel Aviv on Fire”. Assi’s dubious, so Salam shows him a selfie, taken with Tala. It looks like Salam’s home free, until Assi claims his wife’s an avid fan, but he’s sick of “Tel Aviv on Fire” and wants Salam to change the plot. Assi wants the Palestinian heroine, Tala to fall for Yehuda the soap’s Israeli general instead of Marwan, her Palestinian spymaster.
Salam escapes Assi’s clutches by promising Tala will escape evil Marwan’s Palestinian clutches and fall for the good Israeli, General Yehuda.
Salam may have talked himself into greater jeopardy at work and set himself on a future collision course with Assi, but we’re relieved, he made it home — almost. We quickly find out Salam’s not out of the woods yet. He’s not just broke, he’s in debt, and home is just another a reminder of his failures. He’s held in disdain by everyone he knows, including Mariam, the previous object of his affections, who’s tired of his issues and inability to commit. In an emotional low, we theren’s no safe place in Salam’s life — he’s in trouble or been in trouble everywhere.
Salam lives like a pinball, bouncing between Bassa, his boss, Maisa, the real writer, Tala, Assi and Mariam, the bumpers of his life, trying to satisfy them all as he ties himself ever tighter in his web of deceit, until one day he goes too far, and the web snaps — Maisa walks off the set, and hapless Salam is forced to become in reality what he’s been pretending to be — the show’s screenwriter.
Salam has never written anything, not even a letter.
Clueless, Salam grasps at straws, and the soap opera’s plots end up blowing in whichever direction his personal circumstances require. When the real life Israeli captain leans on him, the fictional Palestinian heroine leans toward the fictional Israeli general. When Salam’s friends or creditors (or uncle) lean on him, his fictional Palestinian heroine leans the other way, toward her fictional Palestinian spymaster.
Assi has unwittingly handed Salam the key to his success, sucking the soap’s fans into the fictional love triangle between the beautiful, clever Palestinian heroine and the clever but stern Palestinian spymaster and the less clever but romantic Israeli general. The whole of Israel’s female population hangs white knuckled as “Tel Aviv on Fire” tugs at their heartstrings.
Salam’s real life has forced his soap characters into unexpected soapy perfection, two powerful enemies, both in pursuit of a beautiful woman independent and smart enough to play them both, but vulnerable too, so the fans know sooner or later she’ll fall — but which way?
We watch, day by day, as the real soap opera of Salam’s life dictates the plot of the fictional soap opera he’s writing until finally, stretched too thin and in too many directions, the web snaps again, forcing Salam to take control of both plots, his, and the soap opera’s.
Surprising us, Salam rises to the challenge, avoids the bumpers and obstacles, solving each of the soap’s characters’ imaginary problems and at the same solving each of the soap’s actors, each of his friends’ and his family’s real problems, managing to find a way to end season one, win season two and incredibly, keep everyone, actors, family, friends and the Israeli Army happy.
Unlike the Israelis and Palestinians, everyone gets what he or she wants — but exactly like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict — nothing changes, and the show goes on.
Zouabi’s written his characters within characters and worlds within worlds so well we watch while failing to grasp his grander intentions. At a higher level Salam isn’t just a Palestinian everyman, he’s every Palestinian, jostled between opposing forces over which he seems to have no control. Tala’s more than just a French actress playing a Palestinian character, she’s Europe, trying to side with the Palestinians, while being wooed by clever Israelis. Assi isn’t just an extremely typical Israeli, he’s Israel, determined to solve his domestic problems, survive the conflict, and present an heroic image at the same time he tries to woo Palestinian hearts.
“Tel Aviv on Fire” sells itself as “Woody Allenesque”, but it’s well beyond anything Allen’s done. It’s a soap opera about a soap opera about fictional reality that, while it’s winning us over, is so entertaining we’re glad there’s no conclusion, we don’t want it to end because we love its characters, and we fear, just as we fear about the real Israeli/Palestinian conflict, that the only ends available will be more painful than the inconclusive reality we have now.
“Tel Aviv on Fire”, 95 (hilarious and far too short) minutes, Samsa Films, written and directed by Sameh Zoabi, starring Kais Nashef, Yaniv Bitton, Lubna Azabal, Maisa Abd Alhady, and Nadim Sawalha; Best Film, Best Screenplay — Haifa International Film Festival; Best Actor — Venice Film Festival; Best Film — Seattle International Film Festival.