There are a few glaring structural inconsistencies in Tel Aviv on Fire but that’s forgivable here. This movie shows two worlds. There’s the fictional version of Israel and Palestine in 1967 and the contemporary reality where Salam lives. Kais Nashif plays the protagonist, a consultant in a soap opera of the same name. But as much as he tries to avoid the present, it reminds him of its existence. As a Palestinian, he has to go through dehumanizing checkpoints as part of his everyday life.
One of these checkpoints get him a chance encounter with Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton, in his first acting role). Assi thinks that the soap opera is anti-Semitic, specifically with how it depicts General Yehuda Edelman (Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid). He wants changes in the script, which Salam welcomes since the show needs the Israeli perspective, giving it some dimension. It helps that Salam wants to move up from consultant to writer, which he can do with Assi’s ‘creative input’.
The fictional scenes proves how the soap gets its fans from both sides of the Israeli and Palestinian border. It shows both the draft versions or the final scenes of the show. And that attractive gloss that soaps like this have are present here. They’re a great display for the talents of Sweid and Lubna Azabal. As Tala, Azabal plays an actress whose character is a Palestinian hiding under the name ‘Rachel’. Azabal gives those three roles enough nuance, keeping everyone guessing what her real intentions are.
The soap also becomes a catalyst for Salam’s career. Here, the ‘aimless millennial’ gets to fake it until it makes it. Director Sameh Zoabi could have made the metaphorically sadomasochistic and codependent relationship between Salam and Assi closer and more rigid. However, he allows Salam to have inspiration outside of Assi’s input and develop on his own as a writer. Love is everywhere, which helps him at work. It might also help him win back his ex girlfriend Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi).
The film tries to juggle a lot of characters and the relationships between them and sometimes, that juggling shows. There are some characters who understandably have to be on the background like Nabil (Amer Hlehel), the show’s other writer. It unfortunely only has time to show Nabil as a bumbling opportunist. Minor relationships from the story’s Israeli side also get the shaft, like Assi and the wife (Shifi Aloni) he neglects. She at first serves as a catalyst for Assi to control Salam, but she disappears after serving that one purpose.
Tel Aviv on Fire should have been longer, or even have become its own TV show to examine its characters. But for the most part, I respect the decisions the film makes about which characters to put on the foreground. Art reflects life when Salam has to choose between going to France with Tala and staying in Palestine with Mariam. This becomes the third collaboration between Nashif and Azabal, and it’s nice to see them in a comedy for once.
- Release Date: 8/2/2019