Tel Aviv on Fire

I have, in the past, noted the irony that Chinese films seem a lot less censored than those from Hollywood, and today I will note the irony that Israeli movies seem a lot less political. (This is true of Israeli movies, I will say, but absolutely not Palestinian movies. Palestinian movies—every one we’ve seen—framed blowing civilians up as a Good Thing, and indeed in many cases the only happy ending.) Case in point, Tel Aviv on Fire: a wacky comedy about a Palestinian soap opera writer who finds the fate of his soap opera characters—and the desires of people on either side of the wall regarding those fates—are tied to his own.

Let's watch!

Maisa Abd Elhadi (Mariam) doubts I can stick this landing.

Our hero is Salam, a slacker we first meet as he tries to win back his ex-, Mariam.  But as she points out, and he can’t deny, he’s just bumbling through life, and even the soap opera he’s starting to work on—well, he just got the job because his uncle, the producer, needs someone with good Hebrew for his Arabic actors (who are playing Israelis). Their soap opera, “Tel Aviv on Fire”, takes place on the eve of the Six-Day War, and the plot is that a Palestinian general sends his lover across the border to seduce and spy on (and ultimately kill, presumably) the Israeli General.

Salam helps out with some simple pronunciations but then immediately objects to a situation where the one of the generals compliments the heroine’s beauty by saying “You look explosive.” He earns the ire of the writer by objecting to that line but wins the favor of the French star, Tala. As tense as things are there, things really heat up for him when he’s stopped at the border by a belligerent commander, Assi. Salam tries to smooth things  out by claiming to write the show, and giving the commander some inside info.


Salam tries to keep it professional, but you know how actresses are.

Well, as it turns out Assi’s wife is a huge fan of the show, as are her girlfriends, and Assi is rather annoyed by her enchantment with the Palestinian general. “He’s a terrorist!” Assi exclaims in exasperation, to which his wife retorts, “Not everything is about politics.” (Of course, the Six-Day War was the attempt of the Arabic world to wipe out Israel and as we have seen nearly succeeded, and this soap is definitely meant as propaganda, but “not everything is about politics”.)

Anyway, Assi is pissed that the Israeli general is such a stiff and he demands Salam write him better. Salam, who is completely at Assi’s mercy—he cannot cross into Palestine without Assi’s approval—exploits this by suggesting Assi write the scenes that he wants to see from the Israeli general. Before you know it, the Israeli general is the hot ticket, and the dramatic conflict endears him even further to Lubna. But he’s also slipping in little messages to Mariam that she invariable sees because everyone in the hospital she works at watches “Tel Aviv on Fire”, especially as the audience grows with the shows unexpected twists and turns.

Salam grows as well. Assi’s contributions got him a shot to actually script the show (especially after the pissed-off writer quit) but he realizes that the Israeli commander’s experiences can only partly fuel thing, and so he starts to write the romantic things from his relationship (and from anyone he can eavesdrop on, like a true writer).

Assi unfortunately grows increasingly bellicose: Salam has promised him (back when he was pretending to write the show) that the Israeli general and the Palestinian spy would get married. But the show’s backers aren’t going to allow that. His uncle’s solution is simple: Have the wedding, but have Tala be strapped for explosives so she can blow everyone up. Salam argues that’s too cliché, they’ve all seen it a million times. (I wasn’t kidding about Palestinian movies.)

40+ years ago

The uncle is played by Nadim Sawalha, a character actor in many English-language movies, like “The Spy Who Loved Me”.

So at our climactic moment, we have Salam needing to assuage Assi, and his uncle, and his uncle’s Palestinian financiers, and Mariam (because Lubna is coming on strong), and not least to defend his newly acquired position as a writer of some skill and the self-respect that has brought him. The solution he does come up with is quite delightful.

It’s a lot of fun. And it’s really not very political. (In fact, you’ll see some critics complaining exactly that: It’s not political enough! It goes for goofy fun instead of biting satire!) The anodyne suggestion made here is, essentially, “what we’ve been doing up till now hasn’t worked, maybe we should try something different.” And I can’t help but note the subtext of the financiers basically stoking the fires of hate.

The stars of the film, Kais Nashif (as Salam) and Lubna Azabal (Tala, Coriolanus, Incendies), co-starred in 2005’s Paradise Now which was my introduction to Palestinian cinema, and features the “happy ending” of one of the characters blowing himself up on a bus full of Israeli soldiers. It’s a great introduction to the mindset, really, which is “Jews are evil. They oppress us and are responsible for all our woes. We must kill them all.” I can only recommend it for that purpose—understanding the mindset—because it was genuinely morally repugnant (and showered with awards, naturally).

It would be nice to think that that mindset were changing but director/co-writer Sameh Zoabi (writer/director of 2010’s charming Man Without A Cell Phone) is Israeli as are all the producers (from what I can tell). It’s pretty routine to hear cries for “solutions” and “compromise” from that side of the wall. But the next Palestinian movie I see with that viewpoint will be the first.

It's delightfully cheesy.

She’s hesitant because the targets she’s shooting at are…gasp…pictures of Palestinian “Freedom Fighters”.

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