Tel Aviv on Fire

Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi and Israeli co-writer Dan Kleinman have created a deliciously dry-humored film, Tel Aviv on Fire, included in an Amazon Prime subscriptions.  Set in 2017, the film is about a nostalgic soap opera, with the same title as the movie, produced in a Ramallah studio for Palestinian television that looks back to the months leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Young Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif, in a delightful performance) is hired by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) to be a production assistant on that Arabic-language show, which, remarkably, is wildly popular among female viewers in Israel.  Begrudgingly flattered by that success, Uncle Bassam wants to avail himself of the Hebrew skills of his nephew, who lives in East Jerusalem.

The retro soap opera exults in a comely female Arab spy pretending to be Jewish and seducing an Israeli general, both to procure military intelligence and to prepare for a suicide bombing to take him out, along with as many Israeli targets as possible.  Salam quickly graduates from Hebrew prompter to head writer because of some insights that rile the other writers but that thicken the show's plot and suspense and render it even more engaging to its Arab and Israeli fans.

Ironically and deliciously, those insights come to Salam because he must cross an Israeli checkpoint each day back and forth from work.  One fine morning, Salam is stopped for questioning after asking a border guard whether calling a woman "explosive" can be taken as a compliment.  When he explains to the checkpoint captain, Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), that he was thinking of TV dialogue and trying to understand the nuances of Hebrew idiom, the real-life Israeli military officer, whose wife and her friends watch the soap opera religiously, is intrigued that Salam works on that program.  Assi and Salam start to converse regularly over hummus (which the captain insists that Salam provide — the movie's standing joke about Israelis' food tastes).

Zoabi and company make it clear that they do not regard the checkpoints and the wall as an ideal or even healthy situation.  The checkpoint situation is obviously a burden on both sides.  But it does lead to some interesting exchanges.  Also, the wall is massive, but at least one can find a place to stop and think, if one is inclined to do so.

Both Salam and Assi are caught up in a difficult, even absurd situation, though Assi has all the power at the checkpoint.  The film makes its point well that those with power will abuse it in one way or another; such is human nature.  But it also drives home the insight that power can be exploited not only for reasons of abuse of power.  Assi regards his meetings with Salam as an opportunity for Israeli soldiers to find some common ground with their wives, and maybe to impress them.  Assi has problems with the way that the Israeli general has been portrayed. 

Indeed, the writers depict Israeli women as "tired of soldiers" in their lives because soldiers are not romantic enough — a rather bizarre premise since the women have to be soldiers, as well, but it seems to be added to the mix in order to ramp up the satire with a kind of stereotype about military power. 

But does Assi possess all the power?  Surely, he needs a lot of things that only Salam can give — a means of preventing incitement to violence, an understanding of why Israeli soldiers have been put in the position they are in, and some respect at home.  These are all things that affect him where he is most vulnerable and in need. 

The film also satirizes the Palestinians with jokes about the "Arab kiss."  For his part, Salam is trying to impress his ex-girlfriend Maryam (Maisa Abd Elhadi) and freely borrows dialogue from their conversations.  But though she is tied to the land and to her family, he is in danger of losing her if one of them relocates to another country: "There's no occupation in Rome, Paris, Australia."

Because the film is set in 1967, it can explore options that would be regarded as heresy for many years, and still are, in the Arab world.  "Is there nothing between bombs and surrender?" one character asks.  Or, as the question is put in another way: "How did that history help us?  Nothing but bombs and sorrow."  The question is even raised as to whether the Palestinians could somehow become part of Jordan.

What is remarkable here is that television metaphors prevail.  As a member of the soap opera team puts it: "I don't want the story to end in '67.  I want it to keep going."  Assi wants a wedding between the spy and the general at the end of the season, but the show's financial backers would accept that only with a bomb detonated in the bride's bouquet.

But then Salam points out that there can be a second season only if there is no explosion in the final episode, so the show can go on and be watched by people of different opinions and expectations.  So the TV production lingo becomes a metaphor for life and for co-existence.

The ramping up of satire into unexpected places thus leads to art not so much imitating life as invoking life.  Tel Aviv on Fire is a classic spoof, à la Molière, that explores not only the meaning of life but the benefits of life continuing.

Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi and Israeli co-writer Dan Kleinman have created a deliciously dry-humored film, Tel Aviv on Fire, included in an Amazon Prime subscriptions.  Set in 2017, the film is about a nostalgic soap opera, with the same title as the movie, produced in a Ramallah studio for Palestinian television that looks back to the months leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Young Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif, in a delightful performance) is hired by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) to be a production assistant on that Arabic-language show, which, remarkably, is wildly popular among female viewers in Israel.  Begrudgingly flattered by that success, Uncle Bassam wants to avail himself of the Hebrew skills of his nephew, who lives in East Jerusalem.

The retro soap opera exults in a comely female Arab spy pretending to be Jewish and seducing an Israeli general, both to procure military intelligence and to prepare for a suicide bombing to take him out, along with as many Israeli targets as possible.  Salam quickly graduates from Hebrew prompter to head writer because of some insights that rile the other writers but that thicken the show's plot and suspense and render it even more engaging to its Arab and Israeli fans.

Ironically and deliciously, those insights come to Salam because he must cross an Israeli checkpoint each day back and forth from work.  One fine morning, Salam is stopped for questioning after asking a border guard whether calling a woman "explosive" can be taken as a compliment.  When he explains to the checkpoint captain, Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), that he was thinking of TV dialogue and trying to understand the nuances of Hebrew idiom, the real-life Israeli military officer, whose wife and her friends watch the soap opera religiously, is intrigued that Salam works on that program.  Assi and Salam start to converse regularly over hummus (which the captain insists that Salam provide — the movie's standing joke about Israelis' food tastes).

Zoabi and company make it clear that they do not regard the checkpoints and the wall as an ideal or even healthy situation.  The checkpoint situation is obviously a burden on both sides.  But it does lead to some interesting exchanges.  Also, the wall is massive, but at least one can find a place to stop and think, if one is inclined to do so.

Both Salam and Assi are caught up in a difficult, even absurd situation, though Assi has all the power at the checkpoint.  The film makes its point well that those with power will abuse it in one way or another; such is human nature.  But it also drives home the insight that power can be exploited not only for reasons of abuse of power.  Assi regards his meetings with Salam as an opportunity for Israeli soldiers to find some common ground with their wives, and maybe to impress them.  Assi has problems with the way that the Israeli general has been portrayed. 

Indeed, the writers depict Israeli women as "tired of soldiers" in their lives because soldiers are not romantic enough — a rather bizarre premise since the women have to be soldiers, as well, but it seems to be added to the mix in order to ramp up the satire with a kind of stereotype about military power. 

But does Assi possess all the power?  Surely, he needs a lot of things that only Salam can give — a means of preventing incitement to violence, an understanding of why Israeli soldiers have been put in the position they are in, and some respect at home.  These are all things that affect him where he is most vulnerable and in need. 

The film also satirizes the Palestinians with jokes about the "Arab kiss."  For his part, Salam is trying to impress his ex-girlfriend Maryam (Maisa Abd Elhadi) and freely borrows dialogue from their conversations.  But though she is tied to the land and to her family, he is in danger of losing her if one of them relocates to another country: "There's no occupation in Rome, Paris, Australia."

Because the film is set in 1967, it can explore options that would be regarded as heresy for many years, and still are, in the Arab world.  "Is there nothing between bombs and surrender?" one character asks.  Or, as the question is put in another way: "How did that history help us?  Nothing but bombs and sorrow."  The question is even raised as to whether the Palestinians could somehow become part of Jordan.

What is remarkable here is that television metaphors prevail.  As a member of the soap opera team puts it: "I don't want the story to end in '67.  I want it to keep going."  Assi wants a wedding between the spy and the general at the end of the season, but the show's financial backers would accept that only with a bomb detonated in the bride's bouquet.

But then Salam points out that there can be a second season only if there is no explosion in the final episode, so the show can go on and be watched by people of different opinions and expectations.  So the TV production lingo becomes a metaphor for life and for co-existence.

The ramping up of satire into unexpected places thus leads to art not so much imitating life as invoking life.  Tel Aviv on Fire is a classic spoof, à la Molière, that explores not only the meaning of life but the benefits of life continuing.