'Tel Aviv on Fire' Director Takes a Satirical Look at the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Sameh Zoabi takes flak from both sides for his films like the current ‘Tel Aviv on Fire.’ He tells Haaretz why it's best to turn the gloom into satire

The director Sameh Zoabi in New York in May 2019.
Natan Dvir

Kais Nashif plays Salam, a young man from Jerusalem with good Hebrew and an uncle who’s a producer. One day he starts working on the set of a Palestinian soap opera being filmed in Ramallah called “Tel Aviv on Fire.”

He’s awkward and clumsy, but he’s the only one on the set who can determine whether the Hebrew spoken by the characters is convincing. When an Israeli army officer, played by Yousef Sweid, looks into a woman’s eyes and says, “You look like a bombshell today,” Salam says this expression seems off.

On the way home, he decides to test his linguistic intuition – of all places – with a female Israeli soldier on duty. “If I tell a girl she looks like a bombshell, is this considered okay or is it humiliating?” he asks as the young woman examines his ID card. It actually sounds a bit more threatening in Hebrew; the word for “bombshell” in this sense is the same as for "bomb."

Sure enough, Salam finds himself facing a rifle pointed at him, and he’s ordered to step out of the car. He becomes a suspect and is searched. A bit later in the film, when Salam advances to the rank of screenwriter, the commander of that female soldier (played by Yaniv Biton) tries to make him tweak his soap opera.

The soap opera “Tel Aviv on Fire” – at the center of the film of the same name – takes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the extreme. It squeezes every possible dramatic element out of the conflict and amplifies it. The plot is set a few days before the Six-Day War and tries to create gripping suspense: Will the Palestinian freedom fighter (Lubna Azabal) remain faithful to her strong and sexy boyfriend, or will she succumb to the Israeli officer’s charms?

And thus, cloying and suspenseful, the film shakes up a sentimental cocktail of heroism, passion, cunning, betrayal and lots of patriotism that threatens to drown the Middle East in a sea of tears.

The film “Tel Aviv on Fire,” meanwhile, takes on that same conflict but prefers to observe it from the sidelines, maintaining a bit of satirical distance. It gathers up the clichés, stereotypes and constant, tragic rituals and extracts jokes from them, thus proving what’s nearly obvious – how funny it is to live in such a sad place.

This is the third film directed by Sameh Zoabi, who was born and raised in the village of Iksal near Nazareth and in recent years has been flying back and forth between Israel and New York. “Tel Aviv on Fire” won for best film and best screenplay at the Haifa film festival last year, while at Venice, Kais Nashif won for best actor in the festival’s Horizons section.

On Thursday the film was released in Israel, making clear that Zoabi is one of the only filmmakers in the Israeli film world who puts effective satire on the big screen. After all, when Salam gets the checkpoint commander to advise him on the character of the Israeli officer in the soap opera, the commander demands a regular supply of the most authentic hummus and improvements in the Israeli officer’s image in the television series. And Salam’s uncle, the Palestinian producer of the series, is determined to plant messages in the spirit of the Palestinian struggle.

Of course, it isn’t easy being a Palestinian/Israeli Arab director in Israel. Raida Adon saw her short film “Strangeness” expelled from the Palestinian film festival in Paris because she had received Israeli funding. Maha Haj’s “Personal Affairs” was thrown out of a festival in Beirut on orders of the Lebanese government because of its Israeli seal. In Israel, the Umm al-Fahm municipality called on the Arab community to boycott Maysaloun Hamoud’s “In Between.”

Kais Nashif in Sameh Zoabi's 2018 film "Tel Aviv on Fire."
Patricia Ibañez / United King Films

Meanwhile, Suha Araf was harshly criticized after she dared show her “Villa Touma” in Venice as a Palestinian film and was nearly asked to reimburse the Israel Film Fund with millions of shekels. Scandar Copti, who with Yaron Shani directed “Ajami,” was attacked when he denied his Israel branding moments before the Oscars. And then of course there was Mohammed Bakri’s ordeal because of his documentary “Jenin, Jenin.”

Zoabi looked around and took it all in. He saw how such films come under fire from all directions. “This whole business of being a Palestinian who lives in Israel, makes films about Israel and received money from an Israeli fund – the Palestinians want to know how you conduct yourself with this, the Europeans want balance in the film and the Israelis also examine you,” he told Haaretz.

“So I said to myself, ‘Every time you make a film you’re under a microscope. The Palestinians look at whether your stories are Palestinian enough or too Israeli. And the Israelis are forever worried about how they’re depicted. And if you get money from the fund they say: ‘We give him money and he makes films about us, so what is he, for us or against us?’ And when I realized that this dilemma will always be a part of my filmmaking I decided, ‘Okay, I’ll make a film about that.’”

Still, it seems that sometimes the harsh reality is a bit softened in the amusing encounters between the Palestinian and the Israeli army officer. A boy in handcuffs is indeed brought into the room at one point and the officer orders that he be taken away because he's busy with more important matters. But apart from that, familiar harsh images are absent from Zoabi’s film.

“True, and why should they be there? After all, no one needs my film to see the reality,” Zoabi says. “Go to Twitter and YouTube and there you’ll see the awful things. No one wants to see movies about the occupation the way it is, and the images that go out live to social media from people at a checkpoint – you can’t create that in a film. If you write that into a screenplay, not only will no one give you any money, no one will want to see the film.”

Zoabi says the reality is so tragic that if you show it the way it is in a movie, no one will believe it. “Instead they’ll think, ‘Here’s a Palestinian director making propaganda,’” he says, and gives an example.

“Just this morning I read an article about a couple who were driving to a wedding and the soldiers at a checkpoint beat them up because the woman didn’t speak nicely to a soldier. If I put a scene like that in a film, people would say it’s Palestinian propaganda,” he says.

“In my previous films, too, I wasn’t interested in showing the physical occupation, because we see that all the time and no one – neither Palestinians nor Israelis – wants to see it at the movies too. The reality is so tragic, disgusting and inhuman that no one wants to see it. And because we don’t have an industry that enables us to make such films, we have to tiptoe between the raindrops. From my perspective, the challenge now is to talk about the Palestinian narrative and find other ways of telling it.”

In other words, the situation is so bleak, the occupation is so depressing and for so many years nothing has budged, that there’s no alternative but to see the absurdity in this tragedy and laugh. Holocaust jokes – out, occupation jokes – in.

Ghetto humor

Zoabi, who has a 9-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, was born in 1975, the youngest in a family of nine children. His father was a farmer, his mother was a homemaker.

“It’s not that I want to make comedies as a declaration; it’s simply the most interesting place for me because it’s a good reflection of the place where I grew up,” he said via Skype from a hotel room in Washington, where his film is being shown at a festival.

“The Palestinians are very funny. In Iksal everyone laughs all the time. I never grew up in an atmosphere of ‘How depressing, today Netanyahu did this and that.’ It’s what is called ‘ghetto humor,’ like the Jews have, when you feel like the world all around you is attacking you and humor is your only way to survive,” he says.

“So for me it’s always been like that. My family is very funny and I don’t remember that anyone ever wanted to say anything serious or sad in the village without adding some kind of punch line.”

A scene from 'Tel Aviv on Fire.'
Courtesy of Patricia Peribáñez

Zoabi says the first time he went to a movie theater he was 20. There was no movie theater in the village or nearby, so his cinematic education boiled down to Egyptian and French films on television Friday afternoons.

He was an excellent student but after high school he worked in construction and building greenhouses in the Arava in the southeast. He then applied to law studies and engineering studies, including at the Technion, was accepted to both but at the last minute decided to register for film studies and English at Tel Aviv University.

He lived in Tel Aviv for three and a half years, became familiar with the many stereotypes Jews hold about Arabs, and refused to make films about the oppression of women and male dominance in Arab society, as was expected of him. So when he was offered a scholarship for a master’s program at Columbia University in New York, he leapt at the chance. He was sure he’d be able to tell the stories of the society where he grew up without being subjected to the Jewish Israeli stereotypes. But instead he encountered other stereotypes.

When he tried to raise money for his 2005 short film “Be Quiet,” which told the story of a Palestinian father and son who set out for a car trip in the reality of the Israeli occupation, the United States was still traumatized by 9/11. A film that humanizes a Palestinian character wasn’t the most attractive thing on the market, and Zoabi failed to raise the necessary funding. He was on the verge of despair.

He even considered returning to Israel to study law, but at the last minute he received French funding for the film. From there everything went much more smoothly. "Be Quiet" came out and he was invited to take part in the student film competition at Cannes, where he won third prize. After that Zoabi was accepted to the festival’s resident program; he was invited to live in Paris for a few months and write a screenplay for a feature film.

“A Man Without a Cell Phone,” his debut feature in 2012, told the story of a young man who is happy that a new cellular antenna in his village is about to improve his phone reception. But then he has to join his father’s protest against the antenna, which threatens his father’s olive grove.

“Hardly anyone I met abroad knew how Arabs live in Israel, in a village, and what it’s like to be a second-class citizen. So instead of explaining myself all the time, I decided I would make a film that would show where I come from,” he says about his comic drama that was received a bit coldly.

As Zoabi told Haaretz around the time the film came out, “The audience had a hard time getting used to the fact that this is a Palestinian comedy with hidden political messages, not a serious drama with blunt and direct political statements.”

Still, he decided that his next film would also be comic, so he wrote “Tel Aviv on Fire” with Dan Kleinman, who had been his film teacher in New York. “He’s Jewish, but he isn’t really connected to his Jewish origins,” Zoabi says.

In between, he co-wrote Hany Abu-Assad’s 2015 film “The Idol,” took part in the French-Palestinian documentary project “Family Albums,” and directed the film “Under the Same Sun” written by Yossi Aviram about two businessmen, an Israeli and a Palestinian, who want to establish a solar energy company to serve Arab villages that don’t have electricity.

For one scene in “Under the Same Sun,” Zoabi had to film in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. That was the first time he ever entered a settlement and the people didn’t know he was Palestinian because it was an Israeli production and he was the director who had come from New York.

“So I went into one of the houses; we were looking for locations, and with the couple who lived there I went out on the balcony and beneath it was a military checkpoint, to the left of it was a Palestinian village and next to that  was another village,” Zoabi says. “I asked them what the name of this village was and they didn’t know, or the name of the other village. Then I asked where Ramallah was and the wife pointed in one direction and the husband in the other.

“And then I understood that we’ve made this land into bubbles of reality. People live in these bubbles and don’t leave them because outside them there’s a world that’s inhuman and they prefer not to see it. They’ve already seen enough as soldiers and they want to move on. The wall is good not for security but to hide what’s happening on the other side of it.

“The Israelis don’t want to deal with this, don’t want to see it. And it’s not just the Israelis, it’s not just the famous Tel Aviv bubble, there’s also the bubble of the Galilee. In my village I didn’t have to deal with Israelis because I could go to school there and find everything I needed in Nazareth. And in Ramallah it’s the same – they too live in a bubble.”

A scene from Sameh Zoabi's 2013 film "Under the Same Sun."
Binyamin Hiram

Between two worlds

So it’s that bubble that he wants to puncture in “Tel Aviv on Fire.” He decided to create a dialogue between a Palestinian and an Israeli, to bring together a Palestinian from Jerusalem and Palestinians from Ramallah and remove some of the barriers. He also wanted to put at the center of his movie a Palestinian filmmaker that everybody always wants something from, and whose films they examine with a magnifying glass.

“When people see the last scene in the film they ask: ‘What is Sameh saying here from a political perspective?’” he says. “An Israeli who sees the film says: ‘Wow, we’re giving money to Palestinians to make films and they say bad things abut us.’ Whereas the Palestinian says: ‘He takes money from the Israelis and makes films that only they like.’ So for the director this is stressful. You know that people are waiting, looking for something to attack you about. We’re always between a rock and hard place, and I know this from all our directors, especially those born in Israel.”

Are you in touch with other Palestinian directors who live in Israel? Do you consult among yourselves about the way to handle these pressures?

“Of course I’m in touch with all the directors and we talk about this frequently, about this feeling that we aren’t entirely Israeli, that we are Israeli Arabs, and not entirely Palestinians in the eyes of the rest of the Arab world. Incidentally, this isn’t unique to the world of film but reflects the attitude toward the entire community since 1948. In any case, as a result of this, many of our films don’t get screened at festivals in Arab countries and don’t get commercially distributed there because of the Israeli money that was used to make them.

“But they also rarely win much attention in the Israeli mainstream because the Palestinian point of view doesn’t interest the Israelis. So we talk about this. It’s a bit of a situation of impotence, and everyone decides for himself how to act. I don’t think there’s any solution on the horizon for now – the absence of a diplomatic solution on the horizon or any sort of vision for resolving the conflict also contributes to this. But maybe it will change some day.”

There are Palestinian artists who to get out of this trap simply refuse to take money form Israeli funds.

“I’m not conflicted. From my perspective it’s simple: If there’s no influence on the content of the films I want to make, there’s no problem. I make my film and no one is forcing me to do things I don’t want to do. No one is demanding that I compromise on anything. So why not?

“As a citizen, after all, I do everything in the state: I pay taxes, I go to hospitals, I take out mortgages, I study. I don’t feel uncomfortable with this. But I also understand those who don’t want to take the money. Everyone has his own opinions. In the meantime, I’m telling my stories, showing my identity, and there’s no disconnect between them. At the same time, I’m not condemning anyone who doesn’t want to take money from the fund.”

In the wake of the Suha Araf affair, in which the director showed her film abroad as Palestinian even though it was supported by an Israeli fund, it was decided to make all the filmmakers show their films as Israeli. Is this a problem for you?

“This puts us in an uncomfortable position and that’s the government’s plan. The Israeli – it’s uncomfortable for him to deal with the Palestinian. They would rather we weren’t there at all, and if they could remove us, they would. So they’re always advancing the idea of ‘let’s make it harder and maybe they’ll get up and leave.’

“But I think this is fleeing from the reality because the Palestinian is there with you, alongside you. So inventing laws that will make you feel like you aren’t living with Palestinians – that isn’t the right way. They’re trying to determine by law that this is an Israeli film in order to eradicate the Palestinian identity of the person who made it. And the moment they authorize this move it’s an attempt to eradicate Palestinian identity altogether.

“It’s like they usually call us 'Israeli Arabs,' but if we succeed then we become 'Israelis' and if we do something that isn’t good then suddenly we’re 'Palestinians'. This is how it works.

“And now it’s too late to maintain Golda Meir’s narrative – she said there’s no such thing as a Palestinian – because at Oslo they recognized that there is such a thing. So what do they want – to go back to the era of before Oslo? This is an attempt to have their cake and eat it too.”

In your film, Salam’s uncle tells him that a director and screenwriter “has a responsibility to his people.” When you write, do you feel this burden?

“Because of our special situation, the political reactions are always stressful for me, so I try to create from a very personal place. I’ll put it this way: We have a greater responsibility than Jewish Israelis because our narrative is not so well known.

“According to the news broadcasts, the image of the Palestinian is very specific because our narrative hasn’t done what it has to do on the screen. So we’re the other – if you’re lucky you’ll see him, otherwise most likely you won’t. The Israeli narrative has received a lot of screen time and has had room to tell its story, about a people that suffered and needed land. And people believe this narrative. It’s the most accepted narrative now.

“But now the world is moving forward, it’s impossible to hide things, and all of a sudden out of nowhere another people, the Palestinian people, leaps out and it emerges that it has always been there, was occupied and its citizens became second-class citizens. And this narrative is also beginning to come up via directors.

“Television still largely deals with the old narrative: The Palestinians are depicted as stone-throwers, militants. I’ve always felt that this is the image of the Palestinian here and I’ve felt I have a responsibility because I know it isn’t that the Palestinian wakes up in the morning and just wants to kill. He too wants to live, like any other human being.

“So in that sense there is a strong image out there, which you need to be careful not to feed even more. What I want to strengthen is the nuance that the Palestinian has basic human needs: human rights, equal opportunities. The Palestinians want what all human beings want and my responsibility is to tell about this.”