'Tel Aviv on Fire': Film Review | Venice 2018

Tel Aviv on Fire Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A witty and warmhearted look at a divided land.

Writer-director Sameh Zoabi’s third feature bowed in Venice Orizzonti’s sidebar before making its North American premiere in Toronto.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets a clever comic sendup in Tel Aviv on Fire, the latest feature from writer-director Sameh Zoabi (Family Albums, Under the Same Sun). Taking us behind the scenes of a cheesy soap opera whose head writer turns out to be a humble loser with a knack for stealing ideas, the film smartly undercuts cliches while bringing together Jews and Arabs in their common love for tear-jerking televised fluff (as well as for the perfect hummus). Making its world premiere in Venice, this modest little charmer presents a lighter side of the long and ongoing crisis.

Jumping slyly among fiction, fact and farce, the movie kicks off on the shoot of Tel Aviv on Fire, a propagandistic Palestinian soap set in 1967, just a few months before the start of the Six-Day War. Its star, Tala (Belgian-Moroccan actress Lubna Azabal), plays a spy who’s been sent from Paris to Jerusalem to steal secrets from an oblivious Israeli general (Yousef "Joe" Sweid). But when Salam (Kais Nashif), a 30-ish slacker whose showrunner uncle has hired him as a PA, hears some of the script’s faulty Hebrew dialogue — Salam is a Palestinian but lives on the Israeli side of the border — he makes a few worthy suggestions, convincing Tala of his skills and landing a writing gig.

Thus begins a series of quid pro quos that has Salam trying to make it as a TV scribe without a clue of how to pen an actual teleplay, all the while trying to win back the heart of his former girlfriend, Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Luckily, he crosses paths with an actual Israeli commander, Assi (Yaniv Biton), during a checkpoint stop, and it turns out the latter knows a whole lot more about Tel Aviv on Fire than Salam does, suggesting plot twists and lines that wind up making it on the show.

The absurdity of what happens on and off the TV screen underscores the absurdity of a place where people share the same tastes — whether for bad television or good hummus (the latter being Salam’s way of bribing Assi to help write the show) — yet remain divided by walls, borders, checkpoints, politics and religion. Salam, who floats easily between the two powers, is a simple guy with few ambitions: He just wants to make money and get his girl back (and perhaps move out of his mother’s house). But he’s quickly caught between Assi’s desire to rewrite Tel Aviv as a pro-IDF brochure, and the Palestinian crew’s rejection of anything that seems to embrace Israel. 

Zoabi keeps the tone airy and slightly ironic, poking fun at the political posturing of some of the characters while also revealing their human sides — especially in the case of Assi, who initially wields his military power in unpleasant ways but turns out to be a likable guy with a good heart. In the end, it all boils down to how Salam can resolve a storyline that, depending on the season finale, will seem to favor one country over the other. His solution feels a tad overcooked and far from credible, but nothing about Tel Aviv the TV show is supposed to be real, while the comedy that occurs behind the scenes only amplifies how preposterous the current situation is in Israel (the many scenes of Salam being stopped at checkpoints are extremely telling in this respect).

Tech credits seem more suitable for the small screen, with French DP Laurent Brunet (Microbe & Gasoline) capturing much of the action in simple medium shots, while glossing up the lighting for the soap sequences. Performances are fine across the board, with the relatively unknown Nashef and Biton holding their own against a veteran like Azabal, who plays Tel Aviv’s sentimental heroine with the perfect dose of saccharine.

Production companies: Samsa Films, TS Productions, Lama Films, Artemis Productions
Cast: Kais Nashef, Lubna Azabal, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Yaniv Biton
Director: Sameh Zoabi
Screenwriters: Sameh Zoabi, Dan Kleinman
Producers: Amir Harel, Bernard Michaux, Milena Poylo, Gilles Sacuto
Director of photography: Laurent Brunet
Production designer: Christina Schaffer
Costume designer: Magdalena Labuz
Editor: Catherine Schwartz
Composer: Andre Dziezuk
Casting director: Katja Wolf
Sales: Indie Sales
Venues: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti), Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)

In Arabic, Hebrew
97 minutes