Review: Tel Aviv on Fire

You might not think that there’s much humor to be found in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi has crafted a very amiable farce that spans the borders and steps lightly around the conflicts. In Tel Aviv on Fire, Palestinian bumbler Salam (Kais Nashif) falls into a writing job on a very popular Palestinian soap opera. But he soon finds his freedom depends on the story going the way a certain Israeli Defense Force officer (Yaniv Biton) at the border crossing wants it to. Meanwhile Salam is also wooing an old flame and dealing with the diva antics of the soap’s French lead. And as he’s running around trying to please everyone, the show must go on.

Salam begins the film as a production assistant on the soap. His uncle is one of the show’s producers and hires him to help with the Hebrew translations, since he lives in Jerusalem. But he identifies himself as a writer when he’s pulled aside at a checkpoint on his way home from the set in Ramallah, and it turns out the IDF officer’s wife is a big fan of the show, so he has to listen to the officer’s plot suggestions. And when he offers these ideas up as his own the next day on set he lands a job as a writer. Of course, then he’s responsible for coming up with his own story, so he takes ideas from wherever he can find them – lines from his girlfriend, more from the IDF officer, overheard conversations – and somehow he’s successful.

The soap is about a Palestinian spy who seduces an Israeli General. Being a Palestinian production, the story is not supposed to end with a happy marriage to the General, but that’s just what the IDF officer’s wife wants. So Salam is stuck between the freedom to cross the border and see his rekindled love, and the show’s producers who see a very different ending. You like Salam and you want him to succeed, but what will happen is a question right up until the end. It’s a fun little film with a subversive message just under the surface. There are definitely some plot holes, but I’d recommend it to people looking for something light, with just a dash of cultural relevance.

[Mainstream Chick’s take: I think I actually liked this arthouse foreign film – in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles – more than Arty Chick, perhaps because I still DVR ‘General Hospital’. It’s worth noting that while the film itself is set in modern day, the soap opera (Tel Aviv on Fire) playing out within the film is set in 1967, in the months leading up the six-day war, which led to some of the territorial disputes that rage on today. So there’s actually quite a bit to unpack here – from a historical perspective, modern-day perspective, geo-political perspective, etc. The intentionally over-dramatized nature of soap operas allows the filmmaker to tackle some extremely serious issues in a way that goes down a bit easier on both sides of a bitter divide. It’s thought-provoking and amusing. And I like how the movie audience is kept in the dark along with the soap audience as to how the final scenes will ultimately play out. -hb]

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