Director Sameh Zoabi's comedy is about a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who finds success as a soap opera writer
TEL AVIV ON FIRE (Sameh Zoabi). 100 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (August 2). See listing. Rating: NNNN
If you’ve been paying attention to recent festival chatter, you might have heard people say they really enjoyed this movie called Tel Aviv On Fire when it played TIFF last year, or when it returned to open the Toronto Jewish Film Festival earlier this spring. And you might have made a face. This is understandable, but bear with me: I really enjoyed this movie called Tel Aviv On Fire.
Tel Aviv On Fire is a comedy, and a rather charming one, which is not about Tel Aviv being on fire at all. Within the world of the film, it’s the title of a soap opera about a young woman operating as an Arab spy in Israel during the run-up to the Six-Day War of 1967 – a show that’s become popular with both Palestinians and Israelis, who each get something different out of it.
Writer/director Sameh Zoabi’s low-key farce introduces us to the show through the eyes of Salam (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian slacker whose uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) produces the show desperate to give the kid something to do, Bassam hires him as a dialect coach, helping the Arab actors with their Hebrew lines.
Salam isn’t a terribly ambitious guy, but he finds himself becoming increasingly important to the show’s production – star Tala (Lubna Azabal) appreciates his attention to detail, which leads to a promotion to writers’ assistant. And then, thanks to his daily encounter with Israeli military commander Assi (Yaniv Biton) at the Ramallah checkpoint between the studio in Ramallah and Salam’s home in Jerusalem, he becomes an unlikely conduit for script notes. (The guy’s wife is a fan of the show. I did say this was a farce.)
The characters thus established, Zoabi starts piling on the organic but ridiculous complications: Salam doesn’t want to shift the show’s direction to make the Israeli characters more sympathetic, as Assi invariably suggests, but such a move would certainly get people talking about him, which might somehow lead to a reconciliation with his ex (Maisa Abd Elhadi). I was reminded of the reverse-Jenga plotting of Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, where every professional step up results in another personal compromise for its well-meaning hero. It’s a daunting comparison, but one that Tel Aviv On Fire ultimately earns.
Nashif makes a great deadpan hero, rolling with whatever absurdity comes Salam’s way, and it’s also fun to see Azabal, best known to Canadian audiences for her role in Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, show off her subtle comic skills when Tala’s personality occasionally leaks through her TV performance.
And the warmth between them is essential to Zoabi’s story, which gets a great deal of mileage out of the concessions, large and small, that are necessary to maintain the illusion of a divided society to a population that interacts on a constant basis. Tel Aviv On Fire was produced with funds from Luxembourg, France, Israel and Belgium, and its casually apolitical stance was surely a selling point to those nations this is a movie that lets its characters worry about the messages they might be sending. It’s funnier that way.