While watching the latest from director/co-writer Sameh Zoabi (Under the Same Sun), it’s sometimes difficult to tell if he has such a firm grasp on the current situation between Israel and Palestine that he can satirize it in Tel Aviv on Fire, or if he’s blissfully ignorant about how many lives the conflict has disrupted and destroyed that he doesn’t realize how problematic his approach to the material is. I’m going to go with the former, only because a great deal of the humor does land.
The film centers on Salam (Kais Nashif), a slightly dopey 30-year-old Palestinian man living in Jerusalem who can only get a job working on his uncle’s evening soap opera, “Tel Aviv on Fire.” The show is produced in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, which means Salam must spend a part of every day going through the sometimes long and arduous process of passing through an Israeli checkpoint. His job on the show is making sure the Hebrew dialogue is written and pronounced properly by the actors (especially lead actress Tala, who is actually French and played by Lubna Azabal), but when he’s pulled over by the commander of the checkpoint, Assi (Yaniv Biton), he acts as if he’s the head writer.
Unfortunately for Salam, Assi’s wife is a huge fan of the show, and the commander begins dictating plot lines that he needs to make a character on the show (who just happens to be in the military himself) more appealing to audiences and, thus, Assi’s wife. By coincidence, the actual head writer quits and Salam does begin to write and suggest scenes for the show, so many of Assi’s story ideas start popping up and seem to be landing with fans. At first Salam is happy to have help being creative (he’s not especially great at coming up with original ideas), but once certain plots come to him, Salam is less eager to have Assi as a silent writing partner.
Shockingly enough, Salam’s personal life is a bit of mess as well, as he pines for Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi), who he once dated only to break up with her thinking he could do better or didn’t want to be tied down or some such nonsense that clearly is not and never was the case. Once again, he’s able to draw inspiration from this stormy romance to help him write for the show, which happens to concern an Israeli woman in love with two men—an Army man and a Palestinian “freedom fighter.” With all of these forces pulling at him to end the show a certain way, Salam’s limited skills as a writer are put to the test, as is the screenplay for the film itself (written by Zoabi and Dan Kleinman).
Tel Aviv on Fire has a playful spirit as it toys with the idea of how many forces might be tugging away at the creative process of any endeavor. If anything, I wish the story had taken the troubles in the region more seriously and reflected them in the show a bit more. But I was eventually won over by Nashif’s casual, sad sack performance. It’s actually Azabal’s work as the lead actress of the series that made me feel the most invested in what was going on. She’s not interested in playing a character who is a pawn of men, and Salam honors her wishes maybe more than those who are actively threatening his well being if he doesn’t deliver certain plot elements. The film is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s enough of a curiosity to give it a moderate recommendation; perhaps more importantly, I could easily see this story adapted for an American remake with only a few adjustments to line up with our present political climate.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and Highland Park’s Landmark Renaissance.
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