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On the Border, with Soap Opera: Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

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By Yun-hua Chen.

What would bring the two opposing sides across the Israel-Palestinian borders together? Tel Aviv on Fire’s answer is, through a popular tear-jerking soap opera and some good hummus.

The film follows a naïve and melancholic young Palestinian man, Salam (Kais Nashif), who initially works as an assistant to his TV producer uncle and then accidentally becomes the Hebrew-language scriptwriter for a popular Palestinian soap opera called “Tel Aviv on Fire”. The soap opera within the film is set in 1967, just before the start of the Six-Day War, in which a beautiful woman (Lubna Azabal) works as a Palestinian spy to seduce an Israeli commander in order to steal information on military deployment. As she falls in love with a Palestinian resistance fighter and an Israeli commander at the same time, the soap opera’s audiences, both Jews and Arabs, are glued to their TV set waiting to see the development of the ménage-à-trois. Meanwhile, Salam commutes daily over the border to work on the TV studio in Ramallah and encounters the Israeli security officer Assi (Yaniv Biton) at the check point. As Assi’s wife and female relatives are loyal spectators of the soap opera “Tel Aviv on Fire”, he is keen on helping Salam finetune the Hebrew dialogues in exchange for perfect hummus. As both get increasingly emotionally invested in the soap opera and Assis grows more eager to impress his wife by revealing spoilers and making the Israeli commander seem more virile and heroic, Assi starts to ask Salam to change the script’s anti-Zionist agenda, first politely and later by threat.

The power of a soap opera to change societies across geopolitical and social boundaries is not an untold story. Nina Maria Paschalidou’s documentary, Kismet: How Turkish Soap Operas Changed the World (2014), explored how soap operas in the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa could prompt societal change; some women in Egypt, for example, felt empowered after watching Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? (What is Fatmagul’s Fault?, 2012) to stand up for themselves and in some cases to decide to divorce their husbands. Here the director Sameh Zoabi, a Palestinian in Israel, used this transnational and popular medium to create a common ground for people divided by the Israeli West Bank barrier, ideologies and religions. Heavy topics of political conflicts and oppositions are transformed into a reason to laugh out loud – not to make fun of anyone, but rather to laugh at the absurdity of life. Within the TV series-within-the-film structure, TV aesthetics, characterized by loud colors, exaggerated performance, abrupt and dramatic camera movement, artificial studio settings (at some point with an enlarged photo of the Eiffel Tower to signify the window view of Paris) and abundant use of close-ups and soft focus, contrasts with the film itself with more subtle and subdued everyday greyness, natural light and on-location shooting. While Zoabi skillfully mocks the soap opera’s visual excess and exaggerated narrative twists and turns, he also used stereotypes conceived from and about both groups to foreground how each group wants to be depicted and seen. Through the dynamics of Salam and Assi, the virtual fantasy romantic world and the actual gruesome everyday reality also become interdependent and mutually influenced.

Telaviv 02Comedy per se is a difficult genre. Here, to achieve this balance between the lighthearted tone and real geopolitical conflicts, and between comedy effect and humane portrayal of both sides is by no means easy. Zoabi cleverly uses the genre to talk about politics and its absurdity in a humorous manner but does not shy away from social commentary. In fact, some might be quick to criticize the film’s ambiguous political stance, which is further complicated by the presence of Israeli funding body, but the presence of power inequality in both the soap opera and real world of Salam and Assi is by no means downplayed. The commander Assi has evolved from controlling the border to attempting to divert the soap opera’s storyline by abducting Salam at the border; here the portrayal of abuse of power, though in a comical context, is poignant. The paradox here is that the Israeli commander who holds real power over border-crossers does not have control over the virtual world on TV, whereas the Palestinians who risk their passports being taken away at any crossing can manipulate, through the soap opera that they create, the emotional responses of their Palestinian and Israeli audiences alike. At the same time, Zoabi avoids the black and white division between the villain and the hero; Assis, who abuses his power over Salam, also has a big heart, and Salam, who seems weak-willed at the first sight, is able to negotiate the soap opera’s ending and juggle between expectations from both sides.

Kais Nashif’s performance as Salam, awarded with Venice’s Orizzonti best actor prize, is convincing and nuanced. He embodies the educated middle-class Palestinian, confused like other young adults who suffer from general existential malaise and frustrated because of his status as a Palestinian subject to the whims of the border control. Lubna Azabal’s portrait of the actress Tala who plays the role of a femme fatale subtly oscillates between hyperbole and self-consciousness.

The absurdity of a soap opera being the best tool to mirror the absurdity of the current geopolitical situation, Tel Aviv on Fire keeps an imperfect yet reasonable balance between humor, sarcasm, realism and an unflinching social commentary.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film InternationalExberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.

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