Tel Aviv on Fire is and isn’t a comedy. As viewers around the world have mentioned, it’s hard to make a comedy about something serious. The bravest attempt ever is the 1942 To Be or Not To Be, by the great Ernst Lubitsch, about the Nazi invasion of Poland, and made during the war. It comes off a lot funnier now than it did at the time. Tel Aviv on Fire, about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict goes down easier than To Be or Not To Be must have back in 1942, but I doubt that it will ever look so funny.
Tel Aviv on Fire takes place on the set of a soap opera being made in the West Bank town of Ramallah. And the soap is called Tel Aviv on Fire. It’s a period piece about a nest of intrigue, politics and love in 1967, just before the 6-Day War. Among other things, a beautiful Palestinian woman spy romances a willing Israeli general.
Salam (Kais Nashif) is a sad-sack assistant on the show, who’s suddenly promoted to screenwriter, and finds himself in a classic writer’s hell. Everyone in Salam’s life has advice for him. The director, of course. Salam’s uncle, a producer, worries about the money people; the lead actress (Lubna Azabal) wants to look good no matter what, and worst of all the commander of one of those horrendous Israeli checkpoints (Yaniv Biton) learns that Salam is writing that soap opera – even Israelis watch it intently. And being a bossy military type, the commander has ideas about where the storyline should go. The commander even writes scenes for Salam. He confiscates Salam’s ID card, which gives him plenty of control over how the story develops. Ultimately, Salam laments, he sees the program, his world and his personal life torn between two possibilities – a wedding or a bomb. This is the hell that writers inhabit when they work for money.
The best part of the movie – which is not always a dynamic experience – is that Israeli-born and educated Palestinian director Saneh Zoabi makes all the big conflicts personal. The name Salam means “peace,” and he has many people to placate: the stinker of an officer at the checkpoint who holds that ID card hostage for an Israeli-friendly story resolution, the money people who are themselves torn, and who want the politically correct bomb to satisfy the militants, although a bomb would make a second season impossible, and they all want to keep making money. The actress, of course, does not like it when screenwriter Salam gives her character cancer because he’s trying to avoid marrying her to the Israeli general, which will set off everyone else in his life. It’s lucky that soap operas are so loose and loony narratively that Salam can later write in a misdiagnosis and give her something else instead.
In his own immediate life, Salam revives a romance with a young woman who has her own ideas about what course the show should take. Even the man who makes the great Palestinian hummus, with which Salam keeps the Israeli commander happy, has opinions.
Eventually, that’s Salam’s life on screen, and not well disguised, either.
So, while Tel Aviv on Fire may be comic, it’s not often funny. You feel for Salam’s predicament, and for this old-style Woody Allen-ish guy assailed from all sides and left pretty much to figure it out by himself. When Salam leaves the comfortable, cheery set of the soap opera, he goes out onto the wasteland-like landscape of the place where he lives: the huge, demoralizing concrete wall, razor wire, hostile Israeli soldiers. He’s trying, in his small way, to reconcile these conflicts. His character matters. I’m not sure the movie does.