Nowadays it feels as if everyone is walking on eggshells when it comes to discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just the mere mention of it causes backs to straighten and fingers to tense up as people ready themselves for the next social media debate. Which is why a film like Tel Aviv on Fire is a rare treat; it recognizes that humour can be a useful bridge for difficult conversations.
When middle-aged Salam (Kais Nashef) gets a job as a production assistant on his uncle’s popular soap opera, Tel Aviv on Fire, the bumbling slacker sees an opportunity to finally become a responsible adult. Hired to get coffee and help cast members perfect their Palestinian pronunciation, his career takes a surprising turn when one of his suggestions leads to him being promoted to the writing staff.
Little do his bosses know that Salam has never written anything in his life. Furthermore, he has been given the task of breathing new life into the show’s main love triangle. A romantic arc involving an undercover Palestinian spy named Rachel torn between her love for Marwan, a Palestinian spy, and Yehuda, the Israeli general she has been assigned to steal information from. As if pleasing the show’s lead actress Tala (Lubna Azabal) and balancing the expectations of fans were not stressful enough; things become further complicated when Salam encounters Assi (Yaniv Biton), a tough Israeli military officer stationed at the Ramallah checkpoint.
Blinded by his unwavering loyalty to the uniform, Assi cannot even let his wife’s comments, regarding the lack of romance on the show between Rachel and Yehuda, go unchallenged. Determined to prove to his wife that Israeli officers are more romantic than Palestinian men, Assi uses his power to force Salam to make changes to the show. This sparks an unlikely partnership as Salam agrees to give more prominence to Yehuda’s character in exchange for Assi helping him with writing the script. What Salam does not anticipate though is the controversy that his script sparks with both the show’s Israeli and Palestinian viewers.
Much like the fake soap opera at its core Tel Aviv on Fire is a distinctly Middle Eastern tale that manages to transcend borders. Thanks to Kais Nashef’s strong performance as Salam, giving the character an everyman quality, director Sameh Zoabi successfully crafts a film that is equally funny and thought-provoking. Zoabi’s film understands the importance of satire as a tool to provide comfort. It is only when one is at ease can true discourse about complicated histories and possible futures be had.
By setting the film’s fictional soap opera three months before the Six-Day War, Zoabi effectively touches on how easy it is to get stuck in the views of the past. A point that hits home when Salam’s co-worker states that he does not want to see the series end in 1967. Though the history between the Israeli’s and Palestinians has shaped longstanding ideologies, Tel Aviv on Fire uses laughter to defuse the tensions often associated with these varying views.
Through Tel Aviv on Fire‘s well-timed comedic beats, Zoabi effectively shows that artistic pursuits have the power to bring seemingly different people together for a shared experience.