Film treats Israeli-Palestinian conflict with laughs, heart

Writer-director Sameh Zoabi and co-writer Dan Kleinman use the shared affection Israelis and Palestinians hold for both soap operas and hummus to fuel their delightful French/Israeli comedy “Tel Aviv on Fire,” which offers some gentle commentary on the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Making a comedy that touches on the conflict calls for a delicate touch, but the filmmakers find the right balance, treating both sides respectfully and offering a hope for peace grounded in realistic terms through the comic story of an addictive soap opera.  

“Tel Aviv on Fire” is also the name of the soap opera, in which a young Palestinian named Salam (Kais Nashif), who is drifting through life, is hired by his uncle (Nadim Sawalha) as a production assistant on a Palestinian television network show. The soap opera, set in 1967 just before the Six-Day War starts, is meant for a Palestinian audience, but its love triangle among a Palestinian woman named Tala (Lubna Azabal), the Israeli general Yehuda (Yousef Sweid) whom she was sent to spy on, and her Palestinian boyfriend/handler Marwen (Ashraf Farah), has hooked Israeli audiences, too. 

Salam, who is supposed to just help with the Hebrew dialogue, encounters an Israel Defense Forces commander named Assi (Yaniv Biton) at a checkpoint. Assi thinks the show is anti-Semitic, but his wife loves it, so Assi offers suggestions to make the Israeli character more believable. 

When Salam shares those suggestions as his own on set the next day, he infuriates the show’s head writer, who calls the ideas “Zionist  propaganda.” However, the show’s French-Palestinian star, Tala, and the actor playing Yehuda think Salam’s suggestions would add a touch of authenticity. 

Suddenly, Salam finds himself promoted to writer. Having no clue what to write, Salam returns to IDF officer Assi and strikes a deal: dialogue writing in exchange for “good Palestinian hummus.”  

This is a funny, clever comedy with nicely crafted scenes featuring spot-on performances. The premise sets up a classic comedic conundrum, which the film mines for all its laughs, but director Zoabi uses it to add thoughtful, balanced commentary about the situation in Israel. The film has a romance angle, too, with Salam trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi), who does not think Salam is a serious person, while he also deals with the flirtations of the show’s beautiful French-Palestinian star.

As comedians going back to Charlie Chaplin have known, sometimes a comedy can say things about difficult topics with humor more effectively than dramas can — “The Great  Dictator,”  Charlie Chaplin’s comedic slap at Hitler and Mussolini, for example, or the Marx Brothers’ anti-war “Duck Soup.” “Tel Aviv on Fire” uses that strength of comedy to tell a story on multiple levels about a long-standing conflict.

This is the second film for Zoabi, a Palestinian Israeli who was born near Nazareth but now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. In using a story about a Palestinian soap opera being partly ghost-written by an Israeli, Zoabi and co-writer Kleinman explore the tricky area of whether an entertainment piece is too pro one side or the other, and fictional storytelling as a metaphor for real life. The debate in the film — whether the show should have a happy ending with a wedding or a tragic one with a bombing — becomes a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting a third way.

The writing displays a gentle, human touch while not shying away from reality for either side. Those efforts are aided greatly by the cast. Nashif, an actor better known for dramatic roles, adds depth and sweetness to the quiet Salam and serves as a perfect contrast to comic actor Biton’s more expansive, lively performance as Assi. There is an “ordinary man” theme throughout, although differing views are offered, but the film never gets too deep into the weeds on politics because, after all, this is comedy. 

Sometimes the humor gets a little over the top, but somehow that seems right for a comedy about a soap opera. The film brings it all together with a thoughtful and satisfying ending, one that offers a little wistful hope for the real conflict, a hope grounded in most people’s desire to simply live in peace.


‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ 

Opens Friday, Aug. 5 at Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. 

Running time: 1:40. In Hebrew, Arabic, English and French.