This delightful award-winning Israeli film scores with its unique portrayal of Palestinian-Israeli tensions, one that is marked by dramatic pretence and cold humour.
Dir. Sameh Zoabi
2018 | Israel | Drama/Comedy | 100 mins | 2.39:1 | Hebrew & Arabic
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Kais Nashif, Lubna Azabal, Yaniv Biton
Plot: Salam, an inexperienced young Palestinian man, becomes a writer on a popular soap opera but a chance meeting with an Israeli soldier threatens to derail his burgeoning career.
Awards: Won Best Actor – Orrizonti & Interfilm Award (Venice)
International Sales: Indie Sales
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on screener – first published 4 Nov 2018)
An indie hit that emerged at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, winning Best Actor (under the Orrizonti sidebar) for Kais Nashif whose breakthrough role was in 2005’s Paradise Now, Tel Aviv on Fire is not just the title of the film in question, but the title of a popular fictional television drama that the plot of the film revolves around.
In other words, it has meta-cinematic qualities, and it won’t be too unreasonable to say that it is a soap opera about a soap opera. Consciously aware that he ought not to make a serious film, writer-director Sameh Zoabi employs melodramatic and manipulative tactics to create an entertaining work that ends up being a comic delight.
Its playful quality comes from not just the generous sprinkle of cold humour, but also its commitment to dramatic pretence, where the tussle between what is written on the script and what is executed becomes a crucible for the exploration of both historical and present Palestinian-Israeli tensions.
Nashif plays Salam, a lanky, socially-awkward Palestine man who’s casually employed on set as a person who reviews the authenticity of the language spoken, as performed by the cast. When the original screenwriter vacates her position after a row, Salam is asked to step in to continue writing the episodes.
It might appear to be a dream come true, but there’s a conundrum: his to-and-fro commutes past an armed checkpoint leads him to hilarious if absurd encounters with an Israeli soldier, who demands that his own ‘vision’ of the TV programme be set in stone in subsequent episodes.
Zoabi charts Salam’s dilemma as he struggles to figure how best to respond to the ‘threat’ of the soldier, as well as the show’s creators and financial backers. This main theme—the ‘vision-ising’ of content—very much echoes the essence of not just the socio-political tensions, but also perpetuates the stereotyping of the ‘other’ through intentional narrativising.
How can two different countries, two different ethnicities and two different histories (each side would argue for the legitimacy of its own history) envision a shared future? Tel Aviv on Fire sheds some light on the possibilities, but they are clearly—and devastatingly—fictional.