Kais Nashif and Yaniv Biton in "Tel Aviv on Fire" (2018)

Kais Nashif and Yaniv Biton in Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

Politics in the Middle East is, needless to say, quite a complicated matter. For thousands of years, religious and social obstacles have prevented a peaceful coexistence. But who knew all that was needed to open a dialogue was a television soap opera. At least that is the premise of the comedy Tel Aviv on Fire.

The story focuses on Salam (Kais Nashif), a charming 30-year-old Palestinian living in Jerusalem, who gets a job as a trainee on the Palestinian popular soap opera Tel Aviv on Fire, which happens to be overseen by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha). One day, he makes a suggestion about the show, which his uncle likes; however, it infuriates the head writer so much, she quits over artistic differences. The job is then handed over to Salem, who quickly finds out that he might be in way over his head.

As the show is produced in Ramallah, to reach the TV studios he has to go through a rather difficult Israeli checkpoint. During one such crossing, he gets called in to be interrogated by the commanding officer of the checkpoint, Assi (Yaniv Biton). Discovering scripts in the car, Assi admits his wife is a big fan of the soap opera; but perusing a few screenplays, the commander is concerned the show doesn’t accurately portray the Israelis and puts pressure upon Salem to change the trajectory of the plot. Salam quickly realizes that Assi's ideas could be helpful to him as a writer and soon his creative career is suddenly boiling.

Tel Aviv on Fire (the series), is set in 1967 in the days preceding the Six-Day War. It follows a love triangle among a Palestinian spy (Lubna Azabal) who seduces an Israeli general (Yousef Sweid) at the behest of her Palestinian handler (Ashraf Farah) – who’s either a freedom fighter or a terrorist, depending on your perspective. The other shoe drops when the spy falls in love with the man she is supposed to destroy.

The over-the-top drama of the show engages both Arab and Jewish viewers, mostly women, who are drawn into the romanticism of the characters. But soon this success puts Salem in the impossible position of trying to please both Israeli and Palestinian viewers (and men and women) in their preferred plotlines and especially its ending. Salam’s quandary needs a final masterstroke.

Directed by Sameh Zoabi and written by Zoabi and Dan Kleinman, the film first premiered internationally at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, where Nashif won the Best Actor Award in the Orizzonti section. While Zoabi never set out to make a political film, the 44-year-old Palestinian welcomed the challenge to create a comedic movie about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well aware of the personal tragedy that affects so many people on a daily basis, in some strange way, he feels it could be viewed as a soap opera that never wants to end.