Critique of ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’: The Middle East conflict as soap opera and farce


Can anyone do a sweet, silly comedy on such a dark and intractable subject as the Israeli-Palestinian situation? For Sameh Zoabi, the director of “Tel Aviv on Fire” (who wrote the screenplay with Dan Kleinman), the answer to the question is another question. What else is there?

For Salam (Kais Nashif), a skinny, sad-eyed underachiever who lives in Jerusalem, there are a few possible answers to this question, none of which seem terribly promising at first glance. There’s Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a possibly former girlfriend whom Salam is still in love with, and there’s also a job in Ramallah, acquired through the most literal nepotism.

Salam’s Uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) is a television producer who has hired his hapless nephew to help him on a bilingual period pot also called “Tel Aviv on Fire”. Since Salam is fluent in Hebrew, Bassam thinks he might be able to check the scripts for errors. Salam fails spectacularly even in this simple job or succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Like almost everything else in this sharp-eyed, good-natured film (Zoabi’s second fictional feature), it’s all about perspective.

Neither the show nor the movie is as incendiary as the title suggests. The TV version, shot in the emphatic style of an Egyptian Ramadan soap opera, is popular with Arab and Jewish audiences (and especially women). It takes place in 1967, and concerns a Palestinian spy who seduces an Israeli general in the service of the cause of his people.

Salam’s predicament mirrors his own in some ways. He has his own strained and deceitful relationship with an Israeli military officer. Stopped at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem after his first day of work, he leads Assi, the officer in charge (Yaniv Biton), to believe that he is in fact an author of “Tel Aviv on Fire”. Assi, abusing his power in a relatively benign way, turns into Salam’s secret writing partner. Both men have just had personal investments in the arc of the season. Salam wants to use the show to win Mariam back, while Assi hopes he can impress his wife, who is a fan of the show.

The political antagonism between Assi and Salam hardly needs to be spelled out, and Zoabi has a keen sense of the asymmetrical distribution of power between Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Nobody needs to be a monster or a martyr. Assi is a bit of a bully, Salam is a bit of a jerk, and the film doesn’t force them into an easy friendship.

Salam could be described as a pessoptimist, to borrow a word from the English title of Emile Habiby’s 1974 novel, an absurdist classic, about a Palestinian citizen perpetually caught between hope and despair. In this book, as in this film, ordinary life is impossible to disentangle from political trauma, and comedy springs from misery and humiliation. Salam’s ambitions are quite modest – he would like to keep his job, keep his dignity and have a chance with Mariam – but pursuing them pushes him towards disaster, farce or both.

The small-screen “Tel Aviv on Fire” plays for higher stakes with proportionally greater ridicule. The character that connects the two worlds is Tala (Lubna Azabal), the show’s lead actress, who returned somewhat reluctantly from expat glamor to Paris for the role. She also adds an extra complication to Salam’s hectic existence: he must somehow write episodes that satisfy his narcissism, Assi’s fragile ego, and Uncle Bassam’s invisible backer ideological agenda.

That’s a lot, and “Tel Aviv on Fire” (the movie) sometimes feels like a sitcom season compressed into a breathless feature film. The story risks being overwhelmed with its protagonist – separated by too many competing arcs that collide in ways that aren’t always graceful.

But on the other hand, a film that is too polished risks lacking authenticity. Disorder may be Zoabi’s moral as well as her method. “Tel Aviv on Fire” (in both incarnations) has to live up to the narrative conventions that call for a measure of resolution in a setting where the odds of solving anything seem to diminish day by day. The idea of ​​a happy ending — or, for that matter, a tragic ending, or an ending of any kind — is downright laughable. Which is perhaps to say that when optimism is scarce, a sense of humor can’t hurt.

Tel Aviv on fire

Unclassified. In Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles. Duration: 1h40.


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