‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ Film Review: Israel and Palestine Clash on the Set of a TV Soap Opera

Viewing the conflict through a show-biz lens makes for effective comedy, but a late pivot to drama diminishes the impact

Last Updated: August 1, 2019 @ 12:52 PM

Don’t call it a wave just yet, but Israel has emerged as a mini-hotbed for wry comedies of late. “Tel Aviv on Fire” picks up where “One Week and a Day” left off, with writer-director Sameh Zoabi delivering on a setup you’re unlikely to have seen before: a lush soap opera about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that gives the film its title.

Much of the drama is set on the show’s, well, set, shifting between the “fake” and “real” stories with ease — and, the longer things go on, blurring the line between the two as art imitates life (and vice versa).

Navigating that porous border is Salam (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian who recently landed his “Tel Aviv” gig thanks to a producer on the show who just happens to be his uncle. Initially hired to punch up the dialogue, he falls upwards into a staff-writing position. His inexperience lands him in trouble on more than one occasion, as when he foolishly asks a female checkpoint agent whether telling a woman she looks “explosive” is a compliment or an insult. That earns Salam a visit with the agent’s supervisor, who happens to be familiar with the show — so much so, in fact, that he seizes the script for an upcoming episode as a keepsake for his superfan wife.

Nashif makes Salam likable not in spite of his haplessness but because of it, like a well-intentioned everyman who keeps solving his self-imposed problems by hook or by crook. Zoabi clearly has a great deal of affection for his protagonist, which it’s hard not to share — like the film as a whole, he’s serious enough to keep you interested while also being light enough to keep you entertained. The director’s control over the material is such that, even when this all feels like a bit of a joke, it’s one you’re happy to be in on.

Tension is ever-present, of course: Salam lives in Jerusalem but works in Ramallah, Palestine (hence the checkpoint), while the female protagonist of “Tel Aviv on Fire” is in love with two men: an IDF general and a Palestinian who’s either a terrorist or a freedom fighter, depending on which side of the border you stand. Assi (Yaniv Biton), the checkpoint supervisor, becomes a major character in his own right, preventing Salam from crossing so that he can add his own notes to the teleplay: “Women don’t like boring men,” he hectors him while insisting that the heroine marry the Israeli rather than the Palestinian. “It’s a law.”

To call this subject matter fraught would be an understatement, but Zoabi’s light touch makes it consistently amusing without being flippant. There’s no bias in his approach, and certainly no villains, just the growing sense that some kind of resolution, however small or unlikely, needs to come about soon — whether on the show or in the film’s version of real life.

“Tel Aviv on Fire” itself is a hoot, with soft-focus cinematography (by Laurent Brunet, “Séraphine”) that’s meant to look silly but is actually quite lovely and its portrayal of a daytime audience who can’t turn away from this melodrama set during 1967’s Six-Day War. It being a daily program means we often see Salam’s additions being incorporated into the next day’s episode, as are his own romantic woes.

All well and good for a time, but Salam is caught between two worlds in more ways than one: He increasingly relies on Assi’s expertise in the way military men speak and behave, compensating him for his efforts with both Arabic hummus and the assurance that “Tel Aviv” will end with a pro-Israel marriage. The producers want just the opposite, which wouldn’t be such a problem if Assi weren’t holding Salam’s ID hostage until he gets what he wants.

But as the stakes are raised and the conflicts become more serious than humorous, “Tel Aviv on Fire” begins to lose the thread. Using a soap opera to make light of a serious situation is clever; using one to address that conflict in a substantive way mostly falls flat. Lines like “Is there nothing between bombs and surrender?” don’t land the way Zoabi needs them to and feel out of step with what came before. Like the show, however, “Tel Aviv on Fire” is still compelling enough to inspire viewers to see it through to the climax, happy ending or not.

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