Soap opera in the holy land with Tel Aviv On Fire

B+ Comedy
Written by Dan Kleinman & Sameh Zoabi
Directed by Sameh Zoabi

The plot of this Israeli/Palestinian comedy is entirely farcical, but the actors play it straight. Therefore, you can believe in the main character and root for him, despite the absurd situation. None of this sacrifices the laughs.

That main character, the young and inept Salam (Kais Nashif), works for a Palestinian soap opera called Tel Aviv On Fire. Like all soap operas, it’s cheap and cheesy. This one is also a period piece, set during the runup to 1967’s Six-Day War. The show’s beautiful star plays a Palestinian agent (Lubna Azabal) who must seduce and betray an Israeli general whom she also loves. The real movie containing this soap opera is also called Tel Aviv On Fire and is set in the present day.

Salam’s job is to help the writers and the actors with their Hebrew dialog. He fixes inaccurate wording (the script has a man complimenting a woman by calling her explosive), and coaches the actors’ pronunciation. He has two qualifications for this job: he speaks flawless Hebrew, and the producer is his uncle. Aside from his linguistic capabilities, he doesn’t seem to be much on the ball. His ideas are rejected, and he’s very awkward around women.

Then he says something stupid, in Hebrew, to the worst woman he could say it to…an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. Soon he’s facing an IDF Captain, and since Salam has a script under his arm, he claims to be the show’s screenwriter.

Soon Salam and the captain (Yaniv Biton) are secretly rewriting the soap opera. It’s not a happy collaboration. The officer insists on being paid in hummus, and Salam must find the best in town. Worse, the captain can do pretty much anything he wants to do Salam.

Why would an Israeli officer secretly write for a Palestinian soap opera? His wife is addicted to the soap opera, and he hopes he can steer the show in a way that will help his marriage. And, of course, like so many other people, he wants to be in show business.

Thanks to the captain’s work, Salam gets his big break and is soon promoted to screenwriter – even though initially he could barely write a sentence. The movie gives Salam a nice character arc as he grows in confidence. He becomes a better man and a better writer.

It’s a fun movie that shows the Palestinian side of occupation, and does so with humor.

Tel Aviv On Fire opens Friday at the Clay and the Shattuck.