Tel Aviv on Fire (Sameh Zoabi, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
A surprisingly light comedy about a very weighty subject, Sameh Zoabi’s Tel Aviv on Fire takes place mostly inside a Palestinian broadcast studio where the eponymous television series, set in the months before the 1967 Six-Day War, is being filmed. The time of the movie, therefore, is both then and now, the shlocky melodrama – heavily influenced by American soap operas and Latin American telenovelas – mitigating the seriousness of conflicts past and present. Writer/director Zoabi (Under the Same Sun) proves himself extremely adept at navigating the treacherous terrain of ethnic discord mired in fraught history, though sometimes the broadness of the humor stretches too thin. When it works, however, Tel Aviv on Fire is a powerful satire with much to say.
The film opens with a farcical bang, the score swelling as a Palestinian spy infiltrates an Israeli general’s office staff. She’s beautiful and he’s smitten, though we know that her heart is reserved for her rebel commander. Just as things heat up, Zoabi cuts to a shot of cameras and the walls of the set (putting our minds instantly at ease, since the production value had otherwise looked quite cheap). It’s all fiction, though the show is at the center of the real drama, which follows Salam (Kais Nashif, Looking for Oum Kulthum), a hapless assistant hired by his uncle to help with the Hebrew dialogue (since he lives across the border in Israel). He’s a youngish man without a lot to show for his life, haunted by debt and a failed love affair, but he slowly takes to his new gig, especially once he lies to a border guard, Captain Assi (Yaniv Biton, The Big Nothing series), who finds him suspicious. Claiming to be the main writer of the show (which Assi’s wife watches avidly, despite its pro-Palestinian slant), Salam ends up, with Assi’s help (who wants the show to be more pro-Israeli), actually falling into that very role. Square that circle and you’ll get a sense of the zany appeal of the movie.
With a fine cast that also includes Lubna Azabal (Incendies), as Tala, the lead actress of the soap opera, and Maisa Abd Elhadi (3000 Nights), as Mariam, Salam’s once (and future?) partner, Tel Aviv on Fire is rich in texture and dialogue, however silly it becomes. Always at its core is the harsh reality of occupation and resentment, neither side in this conflict able to see the other as more than a stereotype. Even the nascent collegial relationship between Salam and Assi is constantly undercut by the latter’s tendency to the threaten the former. There’s a clear preference here for the underdogs, but Zoabi, himself, is never without some level of compassion for the men with guns. Indeed, some of the funniest moments happen at home with Assi, where he watches, baffled, as his wife and her friends swoon over the tragic on-screen romance that he and Salam have just written for that day’s episode. And even if at the end no geopolitical disputes are resolved, at least, on a smaller scale, basic human needs and desires are understood.