A Palestinian and an Israeli walk into a military checkpoint on the West Bank. . . . It may not sound like a promising setup for a punchline, but in “Tel Aviv on Fire,” director Sameh Zoabi will still make you laugh. One spoiler: Tel Aviv does not burst into flames. But Salam’s career might.
Salam (Kais Nashif), a hapless 40-something Palestinian, has just landed a small job on a soap opera, thanks to the generosity — or pity — of producer Bassam (Nadim Sawalha), who also happens to be his uncle. Gangly and unkempt, Salam drives blearily to studio each morning through a military checkpoint between his home in Jerusalem and work in Ramallah. An encounter at the checkpoint with an Israeli captain, Assi (Yaniv Biton), catapults Salam to a new job as a writer, with the secret condition that Assi will exert control over the script. But tensions flare when Assi and the show’s Arabic financial backers disagree on the show’s ending. Salam finds himself trapped in a political minefield: a predicament nearly as absurd as, well, something you’d watch on TV.
“You can flip through it,” writer Nabil (Amer Hlehel) tells Salam as he hands him the show bible. “It’s not Shakespeare.” That doesn’t stop the soap opera from being wildly popular. Set in 1967 in the days preceding the Six-Day War, the show follows a love triangle among a Palestinian spy (an excellent 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 (gasp!) the spy falls in love with the man she is supposed to destroy. Both Arab and Jewish viewers — many of them women — tune in each week to watch the drama unfold.
Salam doesn’t care much for the show. He does care about stable employment, especially if it helps him win back former-girlfriend Mariam (Maïsa Abd Elhadi). After meeting Assi, Salam quickly realizes that his military expertise can help Salam write lines for the fictional Israeli officer. Assi, for his part, hopes to impress his wife by writing for her favorite show.
The pair forge an uneasy alliance, with Naif’s understated, brooding acting playing off of Biton’s blustery bravado. Assi provides creative inspiration; Salam provides a steady supply of hummus. But the partnership is unequal, and Zoabi is careful not to romanticize things. Both men know which one writes for a living, and which one carries a gun.
English subtitles do only so much to translate Zoabi’s jokes, many of which riff on the complicated political reality. A working knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and familiarity with terms like Oslo Accord helps. But Salam’s growing pains are universal. A well-timed sequence of him attempting to write a scene — he opens his computer, types a single word, then calls his mom for advice — is laugh-out-loud funny. A slate of well-written secondary characters also offers comic relief: Tala as the narcissistic star, Mariam as the supremely competent foil to Salam’s blundering, Mariam’s imposing father (Mahmoud Shawahdeh). “Do you get paid to write?” he inquires of Salam.
Zoabi wrote the script based on his experiences growing up Palestinian in Jerusalem and living in Tel Aviv. He shuttles between the conflicting perspectives of his characters without relying on simple answers, allowing humor to pierce through. As Salam and Assi’s arrangement crumbles, arguments about the show’s finale take on an increased urgency. Plot points in the series become personal. But this saga, for all its twists and turns, comes to a relatively neat end. Those living in the real world aren’t so lucky. In the meantime, Zoabi seems to say, we can at least laugh about it.
★ ★ ★
TEL AVIV ON FIRE
Directed by Sameh Zoabi. Written by Zoabi and Dan Kleinman. Starring Kais Nashif, Lubna Azabal, Yaniv Biton. At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. Unrated. In Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles.