Sameh Zoabi’s politically-charged satire of Palestinian soap operas works better as farce than social polemic.
It’s about a third of the way through Sameh Zoabi’s newest that showrunner Bassam (Nadim Sawalha), deep in production of hit soap opera Tel Aviv on Fire, shows a script to Salam (Kais Nashif). “You can skim it. It’s not Shakespeare,” he moans. The former gives a glare, the latter concedes, and as Zoabi’s characters get back to work, he makes a point to shoot scenes without much coverage. It’s the world of the movie, or it’s the world of the show within the movie. If it’s both, it’s for the sake of grounding the audience’s reality.
Shots rarely give a sense of scale, blending Tel Aviv on Fire with Tel Aviv on Fire until Tel Aviv on Fire can straddle both ends of its own border. They become interchangeable in character arcs while the occasional master shot will bridge the gap between the overblown lighting of the set and flats that hold everything up. It’s easy to track and playfully so, and it’s actively constructed as well. Draw back the curtain, though, and Bassam’s statement starts to feel like a jab at Zoabi instead. “You can skim it” isn’t too far off base here.
Zoabi and his co-writer, Dan Kleinman, have whipped up what feels like a rough draft. Its setup is solid; the gimmicks are diverting enough. The parallels hinge on storytelling seen in most meta stories, but they’re in good fun and free of pretensions. This story follows Salam who, working as a production assistant on the title show, commutes each day from his home in East Jerusalem to the studio in Ramallah, and one day on his way back to Palestine, a checkpoint officer named Assi (Yaniv Bitton) brings him in for some questioning.
Tel Aviv on Fire never thinks about fanning any flames beyond doling out a few buzzwords.
It’s precautionary, but when Salam says that he writes for Tel Aviv on Fire, Assi pauses. He waxes about his wife and daughter’s obsession with the show and its Zionist rhetoric, and you know what? This guy also has some ideas for it, not just to make it better, but to bring it closer to his own beliefs. Salam bounces some of Assi’s ideas around, they stick at the studio, and lo and behold, he’s a writer for the show.
But while a scrub like Salam would function as an audience conduit in most movies, he feels like more of a stand-in for Zoabi himself. He’s much more passive than the director, yes, but he’s also too timid for his own good. He comes and goes with ideas as they present themselves to him, and he applies them well, if in uneven and overgeneralized ways. The real issue, however, isn’t his passivity. It’s that he, just like the picture, lacks much of a viewpoint.
Tel Aviv on Fire never thinks about fanning any flames beyond doling out a few buzzwords. Talk of Zionism and international conflict runs parallel to the backdrop, never into it, and the content of the show—and the life-imitating-art story that follows—bears little connection to the gags that come from it. The meta jokes here aren’t universal, they’re lacking context. They poke fun at the torpor Bassam shoves onscreen, and even if they succeed, said bits are shallow, and the film confines its characters to a proscenium as a result.
Instead, it’s beside the talk of politics, gender roles, or the ironic embrace of aw-shucks storytelling where Tel Aviv on Fire starts to shine. It’s when it ducks into farce that it works. More overacting, more showbiz satire, more Ernst Lubitsch silliness—that’s what Zoabi has a knack for. He’s also shown himself to be a capable filmmaker, although a bigger budget sure wouldn’t have hurt. He’s made a decent film. It’s just that he and Kleinman wrote a different one.
Tel Aviv on Fire is currently playing in select theaters.