Tel Aviv on Fire is a comedy about the conflict between Palestine and Israel. I realize that some people may be offended that making us laugh about the Middle East situation trivializes such a serious subject, but Tel Aviv on Fire really is amusing. Director Sameh Zoabi, a Palestinian Muslim, co-wrote the script with Dan Kleinman, who is Jewish. Kleinman spent twenty years teaching screenwriting at Colombia University. Zoabi was one of his students, having graduated in 2005.
Tel Aviv on Fire is set in 1967, “three months before the Six Day War.” The protagonist, Salam (Kais Nahif), is something of a slacker. He gets a job as a “production assistant” (i.e. gofer) on a corny soap opera because his uncle, Bassam, is the show’s producer. The daily series, “Tel Aviv on Fire,” is outrageously silly. Indeed, the film Tel Aviv on Fire is at least as much a satire on TV production values as it is a satire on Palestinian-Israeli relations.
The set-up of the series is that a Palestinian intelligence chief sends his lover, Manal (Lubna Azabal), to seduce an Israeli general and obtain “his secrets to defeat the Zionists who stole our land.” Sporting a forged passport, Manal reemerges as Rachel, the owner of a French restaurant.
Because Salam lives in Israel, Uncle Bassam asks him to come on set to help correct Hebrew phrases and accents. Despite its pro-Palestinian focus, the soap opera is also popular among Jews, particularly women. “Tel Aviv on Fire,” the series, is filmed in Ramallah in the West Bank, so Salam is forced to go through Israeli security twice a day. While being interrogated by checkpoint commander Assi (Yaniv Biton), Salam passes himself off as the writer of “Tel Aviv on Fire.” It turns out that Assi’s wife is an obsessive fan of the soap opera. Soon Salam really does become the series’ lead writer. Assi, wanting to impress his wife and wanting to make the plot somewhat more sympathetic to the Jewish characters, begins making script suggestions that Salam must accept if he wants to continue to be allowed to pass through the checkpoint.
Tel Aviv on Fire was Luxembourg’s entry to the Academy Awards. Considering that the film is about Palestinians and Israelis and that the two screenwriters are based in New York, the Luxembourgeois connection merits an explanation. Tel Aviv on Fire was one of the nominees for best picture for the Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards. The winner of this award automatically becomes Israel’s entry in the Oscars. When the best picture award went to Incitement, the Luxembourg selection committee immediately leaped at the opportunity to enter Tel Aviv on Fire as their own. That’s because most of the movie was filmed in Luxembourg with a Luxembourgish crew, and it was partially funded by the Luxembourg Film Fund.