The plot of Tel Aviv on Fire kicks off explosively. Not with a real explosion – rather, it’s a mumbling Palestinian production assistant’s verbal gaffe at a border checkpoint that sets off the firestorm.
“If I tell a woman, ‘You look explosive,’ is that a nice thing or an insult?” he asks the female border guard in fluent Hebrew. It recalls a debate he had earlier at work: his fellow Palestinians thought it would be a compliment, but he insisted Israelis don’t talk like that. Naturally, the border guard doesn’t catch his meaning, instead demanding he get out of the car immediately.
It’s this moment of confusion, essentially, from which the film’s farcical plot spirals out. The exchange is almost a microcosm of the absurd, tragic, endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a misunderstanding sparks aggressive suspicion and, ultimately, mutual resentment.
Tel Aviv on Fire, directed by Arab-Israeli Sameh Zoabi and co-written with Dan Kleinman, evolves into a sweeping metaphor for the conflict, challenging the Oslo Accords and Palestine’s financial backing by way of neighbouring Arab states.
But to understand any of this – even the humour itself – you really need some baseline understanding of the last 30 years of Israeli-Palestinian politics. The film is incisive, clever and flat-out funny, but political junkies attuned to the Middle East will appreciate it on a deeper level, the way American political junkies find Veep funnier than the rest of us.
The plot is nonetheless simple to grasp. The Palestinian production assistant, Salam (played with perfect demure schlubiness by Kais Nashif), gets dragged into the office of the checkpoint’s commanding officer, Assi (Yaniv Biton). After Assi discovers that Salam works on a hugely popular Palestinian soap opera (also called Tel Aviv on Fire), he releases him, but confiscates Salam’s script for the upcoming episode.
Assi never enjoyed the hit show because of its blatant anti-Semitism. (“It’s called Tel Aviv on Fire,” a fellow border guard argues. “You expected a Zionist show?”) But his wife loves the intricate storylines and sensational romance, so Assi digs a little deeper. The next day, when Salam crosses the border, Assi pulls him over and returns his script with the Israeli officer’s lines rewritten. This, Assi insists, sounds more believable. Ever the Israeli alpha male, Assi all but demands Salam employ his version of the script, using dirty tactics to bully Salam into compliance. The interaction reeks of the kind of bad PR that Israel faces every day.
The catch is that Assi’s edits aren’t bad. In fact, they humanize the Israeli character in a way the Palestinian writers never would. He’s suddenly referencing the Holocaust and family values, irritating one writer who complains the show is becoming “Zionist propaganda.” Salam and Assi form an unlikely bromance, Assi’s border office becoming an interfaith writers’ room.
Without spoiling the film’s ending – which is both knee-slappingly funny and a little too tidy for the depth of this political analysis – Assi’s hidden influence, funnelled through Salam, eventually comes to a head with the show’s producers, whose goal was always to keep the show politically pro-Palestine. The financers, in particular, won’t allow the season ending that Salam and Assi are pushing. “To hell with the backers,” Salam argues. “They don’t live here – we do.”
It’s a moment that strikes at the core of one inter-Palestinian debate: the old guard is propping up a decades-old fight that the younger generation doesn’t necessarily want to inherit. It’s a partisan takeaway that reflects warmly on Israel, yes, but while the film offers an amusing allegory for the conflict, director Zoabi draws the line there. This is simply the story of one man struggling to survive in a battle he didn’t ask for. Perhaps the only real takeaway for non-Palestinians is sympathy for the other side.
Tel Aviv on Fire opens Aug. 2 in Toronto and Aug. 9 in Montreal.