Review: Tel Aviv on Fire Is Playfully Biting but Resorts to Contrivance

The film harnesses the excesses of soap-operatic writing to lightly satirize the cultural front of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tel Aviv on Fire
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Sameh Zoabi’s Tel Aviv on Fire harnesses the excesses of soap-operatic writing to lightly satirize the cultural front of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film centers on Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif), a wiry, hapless Palestinian man living in Jerusalem who’s hired to correct the Hebrew spoken on the titular Palestinian soap opera, about a spy trying to seduce secrets from an Israeli general during the Six-Day War of 1967. The soap is popular in Israel and Palestine and, predictably, trades in a mix of sultry romance, betrayal, and nationalist caricatures. Largely unfolding on the set of and in clips from the soap, Tel Aviv on Fire routes its more trenchant observations through the show’s characters, who parody their own role in the occupation, giving Zoabi’s film a humorously satiric bent.

Through a series of fibs, Salam is promoted from merely patching up lines to becoming a writer on the soap. In order to get out of trouble at a border checkpoint between his work and home, he promises Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), an unscrupulous Israeli guard, that he will write a wedding into the show’s finale. However, Salam ends up being coerced into using his script recommendations to make the Israeli general character more sympathetic, leaving Salam trying to write material that will please both Assi and the show’s Palestinian audience.

Using the opportunity to slip what he considers noble dialogue befitting an Israeli general into the soap, Assi ends up writing such canned lines as “I promised my parents that there’d never be another Holocaust, that’s why I joined the IDF” and “My people need me. These are hard times.” While the show’s writers and producers worry that such pro-Zionist dialogue will alienate their Palestinian audiences, in the film, the martial self-seriousness comes across as silly. Assi, who spends his days in a dusty base extorting hapless border-crossers, may cling to these bromides with utter sanctimoniousness, but coming from the mouth of a soap opera actor plying his trade on a cheap set, the words feel much too derivative, even empty.

Playfully biting as it can be, Tel Aviv on Fire tends to falter when it loses sight of the target of its satire. Unlike the constant escalation of drama on the soap, the film is burdened with side plots—about a romance, the fussiness of one performer, a hummus-related trauma—that feel like conspicuous attempts to artificially pad out the runtime. They exist to fill up dead air, and as most of these moments are unelaborated upon, they feel less like a genuine part of the film than, ironically, teasers for longer arcs on the soap opera within it.

Caught between Assi and the show’s producers, Salam is in a position that echoes Zoabi’s. The filmmaker is also Palestinian, lives in Israel, and is trying to navigate the difficulties of working in the latter while ostensibly representing the former. For the most part, Salam is successful in balancing these two parts of his identity. He gives Assi and the soap’s audience just enough to keep them both satisfied. It’s not hard to imagine Salam’s story as a caricature of Zoabi’s own search for an artistic middle ground. But this is no small feat, as Zoabi hasn’t been able to do the same with his film, having drawn criticism from the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, or B.D.S., movement for his participation in several Israeli-sponsored festivals. In this context, Tel Aviv on Fire reads like both a reflection on the many mundane ways political borders undergird cultural ones and an apologia for the routes taken to navigate them.

The film suggests that mass media can be a fruitful way of discussing such borders without itself being naïve about the limits of TV’s potential. Assi’s unironic conviction that a wedding in the show’s finale could end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no less clichéd than a soap (a sign in his apartment that reads “live, laugh, love” feels like another tell of his sentimentality). Salam and his co-workers, some of whom have spent time in Israeli prisons, have no such illusions. They know that a contrived ending is no less so because it has high aspirations.

 Cast: Lubna Azabal, Nadim Sawalha, Kais Nashif, Yaniv Biton, Maisa Abd Elhadi  Director: Sameh Zoabi  Screenwriter: Dan Kleinmen, Sameh Zoabi  Distributor: Cohen Media Group  Running Time: 100 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2018  Buy: Video

Peter Goldberg

Peter Goldberg is a New York City-based film critic and copywriter whose criticism has appeared in The Baffler, Film Comment, and The Brooklyn Rail.

My copywriting portfolio is available upon request. Contact me at peter at peterfgoldberg dot com.

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