Film Review – TEL AVIV ON FIRE (Israel/Luxembourg 2018) ***

Tel Aviv on Fire Poster
Salam, an inexperienced young Palestinian man, becomes a writer on a popular soap opera after a chance meeting with an Israeli soldier. His creative career is on the rise – until the …See full summary »


Sameh Zoabi

Is Tel Aviv really on fire?  TEL AVIV ON FIRE is the name of the fictitious TV spy opera in which a Palestinian female infiltrates the Israeli military in order to kill the commander.  The film begins with an act from the show being filmed.  One can tell right away this is not the real thing but something filmed from the way the scene is carried out, with extra melodrama and cheesiness.  But after the camera pulls back, what happens in the background with arguments among the actress, scriptwriter, director and producer is just as melodramatic.

The film then settles on the writer Salem.  Salem is relatively good-looking, single and a bit of a troublemaker.  Troublemakers make the best reluctant heroes. 

Salem (Kais Nashef) is a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, who is a low-level production assistant on the soap opera “Tel Aviv on Fire” in Ramallah. Following a lie he tells Asi (Yaniv Biton), the commanding officer at the checkpoint he must pass through every day to get to work, Salem is suddenly promoted to be a screenwriter on the show. There is only one problem – Salem can’t write screenplays. To avoid getting fired, Salem makes a deal with Asi, who helps him write in exchange for fine Palestinian hummus, and a promise that the series’ plot will end with a wedding. However, the Palestinian investors want a different ending, and Salem finds himself in a bind.

Most Israeli and Palestinian films have their conflict as the subject and it is not surprising to see the reason.  The conflict has been going on for ages, is still unresolved and makes a permanent dent in the lives of both peoples.

The script loves playing with life imitating art and art imitating art.  What happens in he soap opera affects the characters in the film and vice versa.  “Why do you like the show?  It is anti-semitic,”  Asks the commander to his wife to which the reply is “Not everything is political.  It is romantic.”  The romance of the soap opera eventually changes his hard-ass attitude towards the war.

There is one excellent written scene in which Asi asks the Israeli writer how to tell a couple is in love.  “By hugs and kisses?” asked the Israeli.  “No but by the way they listen to one another.”  The film is about these two enemies coming together listening and writing the script for the TV soap opera together – a subtle message delivered by the film to the audience.

The film has won numerous awards including Venice Film Festival 2018’s Best Film (Interfilm Award).  It recently opened the Toronto Jewish Film Festival to a sold-out theatre.  A definite crowd-pleaser  – this ingenious rarely-seen comedic satire on the Arab-Israeli conflict, about a Palestinian soap opera writer who takes story ideas from an Israeli checkpoint commander.

The film at times tries too hard to be a crowd pleaser.  It is not difficult to see the reason audiences love the picture.  Audiences also love melodramatic soap operas and TEL AVIV ON FIRE while disguising itself as a satire, often plays like one.


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