A winsome and delicate farce about a (fictional) Palestinian soap opera that people are able to enjoy on both sides of the West Bank, Sameh Zoabi’s “Tel Aviv on Fire” might be the film we need right now if it didn’t have so much fun taking the piss out of the notion that there could ever be a “film that we need right now;” that a movie, or a daytime television show, could ever help broker a peace that the real world isn’t ready to support.
But this clever little comedy isn’t quite as cynical as that makes it sound. Dancing around political dynamite for 95 dryly amusing minutes, Zoabi’s self-reflexive third feature asks if it’s even possible to tell a credible story about an ongoing conflict without picking sides, or if the only viable options are propaganda and naïveté. And in order to do that, “Tel Aviv on Fire” spins a pleasant yarn about someone who’s trying to tell a credible story of an ongoing conflict without picking sides, only to find himself stuck between propaganda and naïvete.
It’s one hell of a pickle, but Zoabi takes solace in some age-old wisdom: “If you can’t fix something, at least make it funny.” His film can be so toothless that the whole exercise hardly seems worth it, and yet the solution Zoabi devises for his hero (and for himself) offers a satisfying justification for why someone would make a movie about their inability to make a movie, and why someone else might want to watch it. Imagine if Elia Suleiman made a comedy in the vein of a mid-’90s Miramax import, and you’ll be on the right track.
Kais Nashef stars as Salam, a quiet — almost pathologically calm — wallflower of a man whose Hebrew skills have earned him a job as a script consultant and gopher on the set of his uncle’s Palestinian soap opera, “Tel Aviv on Fire.” A cheesy spy saga set in the time just before the Six-Day War of 1967, the new show appeals to the local audience (who like it for its nationalistic value) as well as to the Israeli housewives on the other side of the border, who can’t help but get sucked into the drama of it all.
The show is led by a talented French diva who barely speaks Arabic (played with great warmth by “Incendies” actress Lubna Azabal), but it’s not exactly the stuff of high art; in one moment that’s emblematic of this movie’s satirical charms, a fake Israeli cabinet meeting is interrupted by a collapsing set. Zoabi’s approach may not be subtle, but it certainly allows for him to have a laugh at the broad theatricality required for any two countries to keep shouting over each other.
Salam doesn’t seem all that ambitious, but he’s about to get more involved with the show than he may have ever wanted. It starts with a silly mix-up during his daily border crossing, when an impotent Israeli security officer named Assi (Yaniv Biton) decides to confiscate Salam’s passport. Salam tries to pass himself off as the writer of “Tel Aviv on Fire,” but that doesn’t make things any better. At least, not until Assi goes home and finds his wife binge-watching the show.
Assi is a hardass, but he’s convinced that anything of satisfying his wife must also be powerful enough to bring peace to the Middle East. Luckily for him, he knows the “writer.” And so Assi tells Salam that he’ll only be permitted to cross the border every day if the characters on the show trade in car bombs for wedding bells and give each other the happy ending that has eluded their real-life counterparts for so long. When Salam brings those suggestions to his uncle (and inspires an outraged staff writer to quit over fears of spreading “Israeli propaganda”), he’s promoted to a position where he can put Assi’s notes into practice.
Like the film he’s in — which was made by a Palestinian director, but partially funded by Israeli money — Salam is stuck between a rock and a hard place. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and all forms of support come with strings attached. The crux of the conflict in “Tel Aviv on Fire” (the movie and the soap opera) is that most of the people making it have an agenda, while most of the people watching it just want to enjoy the story. “Not everything is political,” Assi’s wife says when he catches her watching a Palestinian show. “It’s romantic.”
And she’s right, though “Tel Aviv on Fire” (the show) may handle the romance of it all far better than “Tel Aviv on Fire” (the movie), as a cutesy subplot about Salam’s crush feels shoehorned into the action, and highlights the very distinct limits of the hangdog protagonist.
This points towards the great irony of Zoabi’s film: Despite its emphasis on the way that “real people” tend to exist outside the simple arithmetic of sociopolitical machinations — and the way that filtering those machinations through a soap opera exposes their chintzy performative nature — this farce is far more pointed when it operates on a macro level. The movie deflates when it keys in on Salam’s personal dilemmas, but it comes smirking back to life whenever Zoabi tries to reconcile the naïveté of humanistic art with his need to keep making it. “Is there nothing between bombs and surrender?” one character asks. In this feather-light movie, there’s always hope so long as you’re on the air.
Cohen Media Group releases “Tel Aviv on Fire” in theaters on Friday, August 2.