Tel Aviv on Fire
The politicizing of popular culture takes centre stage in the droll Israeli comedy Tel Aviv on Fire, an appropriately crowd pleasing choice to open this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival.
Aloof, directionless, but intelligent Palestinian Salam (Kais Nashif) commutes everyday through Israeli security checkpoints to Ramallah, where he’s recently landed a job as a production assistant on a popular primetime soap opera – titled Tel Aviv on Fire – that’s set amid the mounting tensions of the late 1960s and revolves around a love triangle between an Israeli general, a Palestinian freedom fighter, and the Arab woman (played by a French actress) who loves both of them. Salam criticizes the show’s inconsistent scripting, and quickly gets promoted to the writer’s room by his producer uncle. Every evening when he comes home from work he passes through a security checkpoint run by the stern, but eager Captain Assi (Yaniv Biton). The Captain’s wife is a huge fan of the show, but he thinks the show could do better by its Israeli character. Once Assi discovers that Salam is one of the show’s writers, he demands some sort of input over the show’s core romance. Stuck in a rut with his writing and not knowing how to proceed, Salam enters into an uneasy, but sometimes productive alliance with Assi.
Directed and co-written by Sameh Zoabi (Under the Same Sun) with an ear for banter and deadpan comedic sensibilities, Tel Aviv on Fire is more witty and perceptive than gut bustingly hilarious. It’s a good fit for the material, which seeks to examine how a widely beloved television program and its characters can become politicized, and the delicate job of the writers and cast to make sure that the scales don’t tip too far in either direction when making a piece of fluffy entertainment with roots in real life traumas. Furthermore, it’s a great look at how aspiring writers find the greatest inspiration in their personal situations and surroundings, with Nashif and Biton displaying great contentious chemistry in their scenes together. The making of the soap and all of its backstage drama might be more widely appealing to a mass audience (and boasts some impressively detailed, low budget production design), but the stories of Assi and Salam are far more intriguing and rightfully highlighted.
The actual romantic plotlines for the main characters are somewhat limp, and there are far too many supporting roles for a film this restrained and briskly paced to sustain them all, but overall Tel Aviv on Fire is a nifty little surprise.
Tel Aviv on Fire screens at the 2019 Toronto Jewish Film Festival on Thursday, May 2 at Cineplex Varsity and VIP Cinema 3 at 7:00 pm and again on Saturday, May 4 at 9:30 pm at Cineplex Empress Walk 9.