Chuckle and sigh at new film about checkpoints, occupation and unhappy neighbors
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Interview'It's a film about people. Politics are a kind of garnish'

Chuckle and sigh at new film about checkpoints, occupation and unhappy neighbors

Director Sameh Zoabi says ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ is reaping accolades because it avoids heavy-handed politics and finds the comedy in regular people living through a bizarre situation

  • Kais Nashif, right, and Yaniv Biton in 'Tel Aviv on Fire.' (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)
    Kais Nashif, right, and Yaniv Biton in 'Tel Aviv on Fire.' (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)
  • Lubna Azabal in 'Tel Aviv on Fire.' (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)
    Lubna Azabal in 'Tel Aviv on Fire.' (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)
  • Director Sameh Zoabi at the Quad Cinema in New York City. (Jordan Hoffman/Times of Israel)
    Director Sameh Zoabi at the Quad Cinema in New York City. (Jordan Hoffman/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — “Tel Aviv on Fire” sounds like it could be a disaster film, or perhaps an adventure, or maybe even some sort of issue-oriented documentary. (Recycle!) The one thing you don’t expect it to be is a laugh-out-loud comedy.

Arab-Israeli director Sameh Zoabi has found a way, however, to bring a chuckle-and-sigh to a story about checkpoints, occupation and unhappy neighbors. “You have to laugh!” my mother likes to say when everything starts to go wrong at once, though in the case of this story, that’s as much a declaration as an order.

Salem (Kais Nashef) is a directionless young man who lives in East Jerusalem, but whose uncle is a television producer in Ramallah. He gets a job as a production assistant. Since he speaks fluent Hebrew, his main job is to check for mistakes in the dialogue of the show they are shooting called (you guessed it), “Tel Aviv on Fire.” It is a pro-Arab soap opera set in the build-up to the 1967 conflict.

Meanwhile there’s Asi (Yaniv Bitton), the bored officer who runs the checkpoint. He hates his job, as would anyone who gets yelled at all day. As it happens, his wife is among the many Israelis who are obsessed with “Tel Aviv on Fire” (their favorite anti-Semitic show) and can’t wait to see how it ends.

Thanks to a series of weird circumstances, Salem and Asi end up collaborating on the scripts. While Asi is basically a good guy, his desire for an ending that portrays Israel in a righteous light makes him mad with power. He’s got Salem’s ID papers and can make his life miserable. On the other hand, there’s Salem’s uncle, and the pride of the Palestinian people, who want the show to depict their version of the struggle. How do you translate “oy vey” into both Hebrew and Arabic?

“Tel Aviv on Fire” has already had a successful run in Israel and Europe after its successful debut at the Venice Film Festival last fall. (Kais Neshef was awarded the Best Actor prize in the “Horizons” section, which basically means he was considered the best non-famous actor at the festival. Non-famous for now, anyway.)

I had the good fortune to sit with Sameh Zoabi at the Quad Cinema in New York, where the film will screen for the public. As it happens, the theater is just a few blocks from New York University, where he teaches writing and directing. The co-screenwriter of the film, Dan Kleinman, happens to be his ex-professor from when he attended Columbia University. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.

How surprised were you when Kais Neshef won the Best Actor prize at Venice?

This is what is good about comedies. You don’t have to wait for people to tell you if they enjoy it; the laughter tells you. At first the distributors didn’t want to take the film because it was something in between — not fully arthouse, but also not just “entertainment,” and it didn’t have stars. No one knew what to make of it.

Then comes Venice. 1,500 people in the hall, 30 seconds into the film everyone is laughing, clapping three or four times in the middle, standing ovation at the end. It was what I was hoping to make, but you never know for sure. I was crying the whole time.

Kais Nashif in ‘Tel Aviv on Fire.’ (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Tell me how the idea for this formed.

I’m Palestinian and grew up inside Israel. I speak both Arabic and Hebrew. I went to Tel Aviv University. So I know how the Israelis think of Palestinians and know how Palestinians think of Israelis. And that’s your source of comedy: stereotypes. And how does everyone see the other in their soap opera.

What is an “Arab-Israeli,” well, it’s just a way to differentiate you from a Palestinian who lives in the West Bank from a Palestinian who is a refugee in Lebanon or something. You have a special place. This has always been my issue.

Once you acknowledge and accept that Palestinians already live among you, there are ways we can move forward and accept each other. If we can connect and see one another as equals, we can move forward toward a better solution. The genesis of the film comes from all of that.

With all my films is the discussion of: “Oh, is this too Israeli? Is this too Palestinian?” If you take money from Israeli funds, there’s always that moment when they are like, “Okay, we’re giving this guy money? Is he going to turn too Palestinian on us?” Then there are some in the Arab world that say you should never engage or normalize with Israelis while the occupation still exists; they can say you sold your soul to the Devil.

That dilemma is the core of “Tel Aviv on Fire.” This trap, trying to please everybody. It makes a great movie!

Lubna Azabal in ‘Tel Aviv on Fire.’ (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

I’m reminded of what happened to the director Maysaloun Hamoud, who I met with, whose film “In Between” is, I think, even more critical of Israel than yours, but who still ended up on the receiving end of a fatwa.

It’s a difficult situation, and also why I am not interested in writing about topics. This is a humorous film, a character-driven film. It isn’t about big political ideas, it is about normal people living in a situation that isn’t normal. Palestinians and Israelis seem to love my movie with the same intensity. It didn’t polarize anyone. The film talks about a need for normalcy. It hasn’t existed for a long time. And, of course, we have more in common than what everyone else in the world is telling us.

It’s about characters but works so well as a wider metaphor — two people literally on opposite sides of a fence are forced to work together, to attempt to create a satisfying story. But if you are writing about writers, you need to be crafty.

It was very delicate to write. Lots and lots of outlining, and also of the soap opera. I had to create two stories! The television show and then the film around it. I did not write from a political agenda. It’s like “Bullets Over Broadway,” where one person has control and the other doesn’t, and he’s trapped to please two different sides. The politics just become a kind of garnish.

Kais Nashif, right, and Yaniv Biton in ‘Tel Aviv on Fire.’ (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Figuring out why the main character first got stopped at the checkpoint was tough. That was something that came to me in the shower — mentioning the word “bomb” as a way to describe an attractive woman. That was actually the hardest part, we had the outline but couldn’t start it. But call a woman “ptzatzah” in Hebrew, a bomb, well it can be a compliment or an insult. After that we had the script in a few weeks.

Have you gotten feedback like, “You shouldn’t joke about the checkpoints!”

You always get a few people who mistake comedy as making fun of a situation. But most people get it. People are funny back home. Palestinians are funny people! The way we live is funny. Even though we do feel an oppression, we don’t wake up each morning feeling that. Humor is a way of survival. It’s a ghetto humor.

When my first film had a special screening on the Upper West Side, all I heard was, “it’s so Jewish!” Then I showed it at an event at MoMA with lots of Arabs in the audience — “It’s so Arab.” It’s a humor where the world is up here and out to get us down here.

Like all great movies about soap operas — “Tootsie” or “Soap Dish” — this has a perfect ending. And it has to, because it is all about a quest for the perfect ending. Did the final scenes come to you in a flash in the shower or something?

It was the thing that drove us all crazy. Especially the financiers. It didn’t seem believable on the page. It had to be so nuanced, and also, politically, it could have so many meanings. People read it and question [adopting a serious voice], “Oh, but what does he mean?!”

People watch the film and Israelis and Palestinians can see scenes and both understand, it builds to how do you end it!?! Every image will be read as too Israeli or too Palestinian. So it had to come back to what it is about: It’s about a man trying to find his voice. And that a new generation is going to take leadership and start a new chapter.

It’s funny, when I made my last film, “Under the Same Sun,” I was a Palestinian director with a mostly Israeli crew. We were scouting at one of the Israeli settlements. But because I came from New York, and they were in touch with my Israeli crew, they just assumed that I was Jewish or Israeli. So I come to the settlement and they opened up about living as settlers in the West Bank. We went out to a balcony and saw a Palestinian village and I asked, “What’s the name of that village?” and nobody knew. I said, “Where is Ramallah?” and everyone was pointing in different directions.

Maisa Abd Elhadi in ‘Tel Aviv on Fire.’ (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Twenty years after Oslo and we live in such bubbles. We were supposed to grow closer together. Palestinians and Israelis don’t even want to see one another. Walls, checkpoints, bubbles. Palestinians only see Israelis as soldiers. Israelis only see Palestinians when they go into the army. Go to Tel Aviv, nobody there wants to leave. Go to Ramallah, no one is going to refugee camps. Everyone is in a bubble and both governments are managing the bubbles. They are managing the occupation, not solving it.

So I say: No. I don’t want to make a movie about “us against them.” That narrative already exists! I want to blow up these bubbles.

Director Sameh Zoabi holds the movie poster for ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ at the Quad Cinema in New York City. (Jordan Hoffman/Times of Israel)

Living in New York, are you surprised about how some people here perceive the situation?

A lot of people don’t know, and I don’t blame them. People are busy! People have a mortgage. Even myself, you know, raising a family. Maybe that’s part of the system, to keep citizens busy?

Also there is the media — they look for scandals. A rocket there, a killing here, they are not interested in presenting the story of a common man who is living a reality that isn’t normal.

It’s why you don’t see victims in my films, or people fighting. I am interested in the 90 percent of us who just wake up in the morning and live their lives. So people who come to this movie who don’t know anything about the Middle East will still relate.

There’s a great art-reflecting-life part of the story, as your co-writer on this film is named Dan Kleinman, so I am assuming he is Jewish.

Yes, but he’s Jewish but doesn’t know it. He grew up in Kentucky and he does not have much of a connection. Like he would call me and ask, “Hey, did you talk to Amir?” our producer. And I’d say “No, it’s Shabbat,” and he’d have no idea.

Honestly his lack of connection to that place works for the benefit of the film, to give it a universal feel. He had the distance, and would convince me not to push the politics. And his screenwriting experience of 35 years is essential.

If he was your former professor clearly he must have liked you as a student.

I don’t know, I never took notes. But we work very well together. And we’ll be collaborating on the next one, which will either be an American film, adapted from a book in English, or a comedy set in Gaza.

A recurring theme in your film is hummus. The one thing everyone can seem to agree on.

Hummus is an essential part of the conflict. And the funny thing is that I don’t even like hummus that much.

“Tel Aviv on Fire” is in theaters in Los Angeles and New York beginning August 2, then expanding throughout North America.

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