‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ seeks to burn through the nonsense of needless drama

“Tel Aviv on Fire” (2018 production, 2019 release). Cast: Kais Nashif, Lubna Azabal. Yaniv Biton, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Nadim Sawalha, Salim Dau, Yousef “Joe” Sweid, Amer Hlehel, Laëtitia Eïdo, Ashraf Farah, Ula Tabari, Yaffa Levi. Director: Sameh Zoabi. Screenplay: Dan Kleinman and Sameh Zoabi. Web site. Trailer.

We’ve all experienced situations where the drama meter unfortunately gets turned up way beyond manageable levels. We stand by in shock (and sometimes horror) as events spiral to a fever pitch on their way to careening out of control. In fact, all we need is a Greek chorus to drop in and fan the flames of the emerging spectacle. Woe, oh dreaded woe. But must we really head down that path? Perhaps there are better ways to resolve such matters, a suggestion proposed in the new celluloid satire, “Tel Aviv on Fire.”

Fan loyalty notwithstanding, soap operas are often easy targets for ridicule. Their frequently exaggerated, over-the-top story lines and melodramatic acting regularly draw criticism from those who prefer their entertainment outlets to be “more realistic.” But, given the bona fide, often-overinflated drama of everyday life, with developments that are far more absurd than anything script writers can concoct, these shows may not be as out there as many might think.

So it is with Tel Aviv on Fire, an immensely popular Palestinian soap set during the 1967 Six-day War. The show follows the exploits of Manal (a.k.a. Rachel) (Lubna Azabal), a Palestinian resistance fighter sent undercover to infiltrate Israeli Defense Forces by her lover/colleague, Marwan (Ashraf Farah). Posing as an Israeli assistant to Gen. Yehuda Edelman (Yousef “Joe” Sweid), “Rachel” is charged with seducing the general to gather secret military information and siphon it back to her peers, a task that, when successfully completed, will enable Manal to return to her beloved Marwan to marry and live happily ever after.

At least that’s what’s supposed to happen.

Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif, foreground), production assistant on the Palestinian soap opera Tel Aviv on Fire, inadvertently runs afoul of Israeli security officer Capt. Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton, background) while at a border checkpoint, necessitating some creative thinking to figure out a way to get back to his home in Jerusalem in the satirical new comedy, “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

As a Palestinian production, Tel Aviv on Fire is filmed in Ramallah in the West Bank territory, but not everyone who works on the show lives nearby. Tala, for example, the actress who portrays Manal/Rachel, is actually from France, although most of the cast and crew don’t have a commute nearly as long as hers. Some live comparatively closer, such as Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian production assistant who resides in Jerusalem. Having grown up in Israel, he’s well versed in Hebrew and has been hired by the show’s producer, his Uncle Basam (Nadim Sawalha), to help the actors with their pronunciations, given that Hebrew is not their native tongue.

As part of his daily commuting routine, Salam crosses through the heavily militarized border checkpoint on his way back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem. While returning home one day, the docile, subservient, somewhat bumbling amateur linguist makes a statement that a checkpoint guard interprets as potentially threatening. He’s ordered to report to the security officer in charge of the border crossing, Capt. Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), an egotistical, self-important military operative who, for what it’s worth, probably has more discretionary authority to handle such situations than he genuinely deserves.

During his interrogation with the captain, Salam mentions that he works on Tel Aviv on Fire, giving himself a promotion from production assistant to staff writer in the process. Assi freely admits his dislike for the show, seeing it as nothing more than anti-Zionist propaganda, but he adds that his wife, Maïsa (Laëtitia Eïdo), like many Israelis, is a big fan. Assi then says that, if Salam could tell him what’s going to happen on the next episode (something that he believes would really impress her), he just might consider letting him go on his merry way. Salam hesitates, realizing that the captain’s request is unreasonable in a number of ways. But Assi asserts that, as a writer for the show, who better than Salam to spill the beans about what’s going to happen next?

Realizing that, if he’s ever to get back home, Salam will have to tell Assi what he wants to hear, a gesture that secures his release – but that will also require the clandestine insertion of some unexpected, anonymously written edits into the script of the next episode. Needless to say, Assi’s prescience about these new story elements impresses Maïsa when the show airs, but it also confounds the Tel Aviv cast and crew, most notably its actual writers, Sarah (Ula Tabari) and Nabil (Amer Hlehel). How did this happen?

However, things don’t end there. As Salam again attempts to cross the border, Assi orders him to make a plot change in which Rachel/Manal falls in love with Yehuda for real, spurning Marwan in the process. What’s more, Assi insists upon the alteration if Salam hopes to be able to make his daily border crossing unimpaired. So, to avoid future commuting hassles, Salam realizes he now must become a writer to carry out his marching orders.

With a stroke of remarkable luck and Tala’s fortuitously timed assistance, Salam successfully lands a writer’s position. He’s relieved that it will enable him to implement Assi’s plot change. He’s also hopeful that this promotion will bolster his image to help him get back on good terms with his ex-girlfriend, Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi). But Salam’s optimism is short-lived: His plot revisions run into opposition from his uncle and other members of the crew, placing him squarely between the proverbial rock and hard place. He’s now forced to scramble to meet the needs of both Assi and the Tel Aviv crew, a challenge that only becomes increasingly compounded as he struggles to serve two masters, neither of whom inherently like one another very much.

So how will it turn out? As they say in the TV business, stay tuned for the next exciting episode.

Tala (Lubna Azabal), a French actress hired to play a Palestinian operative posing as an Israeli military officer’s assistant on a popular soap opera, unwittingly helps a co-worker solve a huge moral dilemma as seen in the satirical new comedy, “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

In the world of soaps, things always seem to have a way of working themselves out in the end. But can that happen in real life, too? Well, given that the two are often mirrors of one another, it’s entirely plausible. Why not? After all, in their own respective ways, they’re each milieus backed by their own scripting. When it comes to soaps, the staff writers draft what happens, while in real life, it’s up to each of us, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

As noted earlier, many see the events of soap operas as utterly silly and preposterous, but can’t the same be said about real life? Look at the drama that so many of us put ourselves through, scenarios straight out of any daytime serial. In fact, many would contend that the decades-long political drama that has unfolded between the Israelis and Palestinians is right on par with situations found in the soaps. The stakes may have been higher, but much of the drawn-out drama and many of the manipulative machinations are worthy of almost anything seen in Tel Aviv on Fire.

And that, I believe, is the point of this film – to shine a satirical light on an overwrought situation that has gone on too long with entirely too much unnecessary drama. In some ways, it almost gives viewers an overdue opportunity to exhale, to even suggest to themselves, “Gee, it may actually be OK to laugh at this situation at last.” That, of course, depends in large part on how effectively audiences get the message and are willing to act on it to bring about lasting, meaningful change. And that, as conscious creators know all too well, begins with the beliefs we hold about what we hope to manifest.

In its own way, the film reveals the source of the problem, as well as its solution. In many respects, the characters in both the film and the soap opera within it are determined to see their goals fulfilled at any cost, no matter what consequences may arise: Assi wants to see his plot elements incorporated into the show’s scripts, a program in which its characters are determined to have their objectives met. At the same time, the producers have their agendas, too, some of which may be at odds with the other sought-after goals that are in play. In each of these instances, this is the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default at work, whereby we do whatever it takes with our thoughts, beliefs and intents to materialize what we seek, regardless of whatever fallout may come from our efforts. Unfortunately, such approaches to the materialization process are also often rife with disaster. One need only look at the long and bloody history of the Israeli-Palestinian situation to see this.

The key to resolving such seemingly intractable matters is to break through the belief barriers that hold us back. Getting past the limitations that restrict us and keep us from implementing (or even envisioning) creative solutions is crucial, whether it’s resolving the story line of a soap opera – or ending a war – neither of which may be too far apart from one another, as this film clearly shows.

Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi), ex-girlfriend of a bumbling television production assistant, takes a second look at him when he lands a new job in director Sameh Zoabi’s latest comedic offering, “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

But how do we move past those limitations? That depends in large part on the factors that feed into their establishment, but, as this film shows, it typically involves such issues as relinquishing fears that hold us back, being willing to shed attitudes of control at any cost and other similar impediments. These stumbling blocks frequently interfere with efforts to put new plans in place for a host of new conceptions, but they need only get in the way as long as we allow them to. If we’re willing to take the bold steps of pushing them out of the way, we could well open doors for ourselves that make truly inspiring opportunities possible.

That approach can be seen in the tact that filmmaker Sameh Zoabi took in birthing this picture. By using humor, particularly the kind we often find in fables, the director makes his point by busting an exceedingly overinflated balloon and letting viewers see the completely ludicrous nature of the prevailing situation. By picking on soap operas, he’s able to lampoon a readily available target and take some of the edge off the real world situation, even though closer scrutiny obviously reveals a harder-hitting agenda, one we’d be wise to pay attention to if we hope to avoid repeating the same kinds of mistakes with our thoughts, beliefs, intents, actions and deeds as we move forward.

However, as much as I admire the inventiveness of what “Tel Aviv on Fire” attempts to do, the picture doesn’t quite hit the mark as squarely as it could. Its potentially funny premise, regrettably, doesn’t always rise to the level of that potential. Had it been treated more as a campy screwball romp instead of a comparatively safe satire overloaded with overly talky, quasi-philosophical sequences that water down its narrative, this could have been a much, much better film. The picture’s sometimes-tepid, kid gloves handling of its material not only squanders whatever inherent zaniness it had to work with, but it also unwittingly blunts the impact of the underlying sociopolitical commentary, especially in its satirical punchline. While modestly amusing, this offering unfortunately missed an excellent opportunity to present a refreshingly different, completely irreverent, totally unexpected take on a subject that has typically been addressed with relentlessly serious heavy-handedness – and that might be better for everyone with a little lightening up, both on and off the screen.

It always amazes me that we feel the need to get so caught up in the Sturm und Drang of life. While it’s true that conflict can sometimes help us attain wisdom in ways that might not otherwise be possible, there can also be too much of “a good thing.” Sometimes the drama becomes so entrenched that we have difficulty seeing ourselves breaking away from it, largely because it may be all that we know and the uncertainty of the unknown is seen as an even scarier prospect. However, if we take the time to consider the ludicrous nature of this viewpoint, the uncharted territory may seem a lot less intimidating, perhaps even preferable.

Imagine that.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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