Soap-opera comedy ignites ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’

Yaniv Biton as Assi, left, and Kais Nashif as Salam in “Tel Aviv on Fire.”
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

By Michael Fox

Palestinian writer-director Sameh Zoabi achieves something altogether remarkable with his second feature film, particularly at this moment in time: He finds humor in the tattered relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

“The whole idea of ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ is that we have more in common than we want to admit,” Zoabi said in a recent interview before his movie screened in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. “We have to break these stereotypes and talk about what’s in common between us and not what divides us. Let’s remind people how humanity can prevail, in times where the politics of post-Oslo is, ‘Let’s dehumanize the other to be able to survive.’ I want to do the opposite.”

“Tel Aviv on Fire” centers on an underachiever, Salam, who works as a gofer on his uncle’s hit Palestinian soap opera. Through a barely plausible combination of chance, chutzpah and desperation, the shlemiel is elevated to writer. Then he runs afoul of the Israeli commander of the checkpoint he crosses every day, whose wife is a loyal fan of the show.

Salam has to use every iota of guile and cleverness to navigate the opposing agendas that he’s caught between — and to win back the heart of a woman he had dumped. (Even while he’s landing political japes, Zoabi cheerfully seizes every opportunity to lampoon the conventions of both soap operas and movies.)

One of nine children, Zoabi grew up in a village outside of Nazareth where people went to his grandfather’s barber shop for his humorous stories as much as for a haircut.

“In general, my village is very funny,” Zoabi, 44, relates. “That’s maybe why comedy has become very easy for me, because I grew up in a place where they don’t take anything seriously.”

Zoabi studied at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University in New York, where he discovered the need for Palestinian stories. Returning to Israel, he made a short film, “Be Quiet,” in 2005 and his feature debut, “Man Without a Cell Phone,” in 2010. Zoabi’s experience of receiving government funding was the genesis of “Tel Aviv on Fire.”

“You take money from the Israelis, so suddenly you are watched immediately,” he explains. “Israelis are making sure you are not becoming too Palestinian for them. And the Palestinians are watching, ‘He took money, maybe he’s a sellout, he’s doing a comedy.’”

After presenting “Tel Aviv on Fire” at several international festivals last fall and winter, Zoabi recently debuted the film in Haifa to an Israeli audience and in Nazareth to Palestinian moviegoers. It was equally well received by both groups, which didn’t surprise him. But he did have an epiphany.

“All the screenings led to this moment,” Zoabi declares. “Finally I understood: People are fed up. People are fed up of the reality that exists, which is managing the occupation.

“[The film] reminds people of the possibility that used to exist, the feeling that we can be normal people and just get along. I think that’s a fantasy that existed among the Israelis, that we can eat hummus together in Damascus one day. But they aren’t able to see the occupation as a major reason for that not to happen.”

It’s a measure of Zoabi’s skill that the current-events commentary in “Tel Aviv on Fire” goes down easily for Israelis, Palestinians and American Jews across the political spectrum. The means to that success, in large measure, is Salam’s evolution of necessity from hapless underdog to diplomatic savant.

“I’m attracted to people who don’t wake up knowing what they really want,” Zoabi says. “I think they’re more inspirational for me than black and white [characters].

Actually, people who know exactly what they want terrify me. You can’t be so certain all the time.”

For his part, Zoabi grew up in a milieu of group interaction and lots of soap opera,because those were the only two channels the family had. He wasn’t exposed to art, theater and film until his late teens.

“I always say I’m not an artist, really,” he confesses. “I’m probably a barber of a new era in my family.”

“Tel Aviv on Fire” is showing at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles, 97 minutes, unrated.

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic.

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