Tokyo: Some of the most gut-wrenching truths can be told through humour and wit – if only to soften the hard blow and sugarcoat the bitter pill. But how many writers and moviemakers think of this or are capable of it. Comedy is not easy, certainly comedy which is not inane or senseless or is plain simple juvenile. But Palestinian auteur, Sameh Zoabi, gets this all right with his Tel Aviv on Fire, part of the competition basket at the ongoing Tokyo International Film Festival.
And what is more, Zoabi's work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is almost one of its kind. One does not remember a satire on this, a subject that is so very sensitive. In fact, Tel Aviv on Fire comes as a relief, and one can hear some saying that they can at last laugh about this!
Zoabi uses a television soap opera to narrate a hilarious story of an Israeli security officer at a check-point who gets sucked into a popular serial. His wife and family are addicted to it, and the plot is gripping with a Palestinian spy going undercover just on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967 and seducing an Israeli Army General in order to ferret out information and pass it on to her lover, a resistance fighter.
When the show's – Tel Aviv on Fire – assistant, Salam (Kais Nashef), becomes a favourite of the lead actress, Tala (Lubna Azabal), he is quickly promoted as a writer. And when he is stopped at the check-point on his way back home in Jerusalem from his studio in Ramallah, he impresses the Israeli security officer, Assi (Yaniv Biton). The officer in order to impress his wife, orders Salam to write the plot in a certain way – which he does. In the process, the Palestinian spy in the television serial falls in love with the General. If Assi hopes to impress his wife by telling her in advance what the next episode will be all about, Salam imagines that he will be able to win back his former girlfriend by his new position as a writer.
Packed with funny situations – some are plausible, some not – Tel Aviv on Fire pans out like a soap catering to those who are just seeking a bit of fun, and they game for getting glued to the cinema screen without their thinking caps.
In an interview to the media, Zoabi referring to the tenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine says: “On a personal level, Tel Aviv on Fire deals with an artist (an aspiring writer) who struggles to find his voice within such a contested political reality. I am drawn to people just like Salam who have not yet developed a full idea of themselves. They try to manage and find their place in their world while facing constant challenges and disturbances. I am attracted to characters who strive to change and improve their lives, but are not sure how. Eventually they find their voice through the journey of the movie.
“On a broader level, the film has two political lines: First, there is the history of war as told through the soap and presented by Bassam, the producer and creator of the show, who is also Salam’s uncle. Bassam belongs to the older generation of Palestinians who fought in the 1967 war, but also signed the Oslo Peace Accord. And second, there is the daily reality of checkpoints, which is directly related to this history. Eventually, the soap and the narrative’s reality start to connect and merge. As a young Palestinian man, Salam finds himself struggling with these two realities. Salam’s life and his dynamics with Assi are reenacted in the soap and give it a different meaning. To put it simply, Assi, “the occupier,” wants to dictate his own narrative of a rosy reality on Salam, “the occupied.” As Salam’s confidence grows, he realises that this is impossible and he needs to stop it. Nothing can change in Palestine and Israel until both people are equal. This is the only way to move forward”.
A pretty bold statement from a Palestinian who lives in Israel!
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering The Tokyo International Film Festival for several years)
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