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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Tel Aviv on Fire’: a bit of satire never hurts

Of the movies opening today in Spokane, one is a joint Israeli-French-Belgian film titled "Tel Aviv on Fire," which as I explained in my review for Spokane Public Radio is a far different production in tone than the title would suggest:

As they sing – or at least used to sing – on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other. Let’s begin with this quartet: a car, a bus, a truck and a bicycle. Now this one: a pizza, a hamburger, a hotdog and a salad. And finally: a cat, a dog, a hamster and a Velociraptor.

You see what I’m getting at, right?

For argument’s sake, apply this model to contemporary social issues. What stands out in this grouping: Israel, Palestine, conflict and comedy?

Hint: Middle Eastern relations are about as funny as bird droppings in a hummus bowl.

Yet comedy is precisely what sits at the center of “Tel Aviv on Fire,” a movie co-written by Palestinian filmmaker Sameh Zorabi and American film professor Dan Kleinman that opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater.

Directed by Zorabi, “Tel Aviv on Fire” tells the story of a slacker named Salam (played by Kais Nashef), a nebbish version of a Palestinian who has just scored a job – thanks to his uncle – as an assistant on a television serial titled, yes, “Tel Aviv on Fire.”

A potboiler of a show, “Tel Aviv on Fire” – which is popular with both Palestinian and Israeli audiences – involves a Palestinian spy named Manal who poses as an Israeli in order to seduce an Israeli army general. Her mission is to gather as much information as she can, even if it means sacrificing herself. As I said, potboiler.

Yet Salam’s life is about to get even more complicated than the show. While on the way to work one day, as he passes through one of Israel’s infamous checkpoints, he is stopped and questioned. And when he identifies himself as the show’s writer, which is a blatant lie, he attracts the attention of the checkpoint’s overly assertive officer, Assi (played by Yaniv Biton), who – it turns out – develops some fairly strong reasons for wanting to shape the show’s plotline. 

Assi gets his chance when, through chance, Salam actually is promoted to writer. Salam, no surprise, doesn’t know the slightest thing about writing, so he turns to Assi for advice – trading Palestinian-made hummus for Assi’s technical and thematic direction.

Oh, and not only does Salam become interested in holding down the only real job he’s ever had, but he wants desperately to impress the woman he’s long desired, the lovely Mariam (played by Maisa Abd Elhadi). Trouble is, the producer of the show, his uncle, wants to please his sponsors and end things in a way that conflicts with Assi’s plans. What to do.

As Salam, Nashef is a real find. He hits the right balance between a clueless loser and someone who could conceivably change the course of his life and achieve the success he’d always dreamed of. Among the several awards “Tel Aviv on Fire” has won, including Best Film at the most recent Seattle International Film Festival, Nashef snared Best Actor honors at the 2018 Venice Film Festival.

Which is fitting. If only peace in the Middle East were as easy to achieve as the laughs in Zorabi’s satire.