‘Tel Aviv’ mines Middle East politics for laughs

Middle East USA World



Not rated. At the Kendall Square Cinema and West Newton Cinema.

Grade: B

An engaging comedy about an unceasingly serious situation, “Tel Aviv on Fire” is an Israeli satire on Palestinian-Israeli relations as viewed through a showbiz prism.

“Tel Aviv” opens in 1967, days before the Six Day War that let Israel control the Palestinian territory. Yet, the close-ups, the moony intensity, the glam spy who’s to seduce and murder Israeli General Yehuda — isn’t it all just a bit over the top?

Indeed it is. Suddenly the camera pulls back and reveals we are in a Palestinian TV studio watching a scene being filmed.

“Tel Aviv on Fire” is such a popular Palestinian soap opera it’s watched religiously by fans on both sides of the checkpoints.

Salam (Kais Nashif), restless, unfocused and lazy, is newly hired — his uncle produces the show. He’s the Hebrew language technical adviser since everyone speaks Arabic.

Oops! Everyone except the “French diva” Tala (Lubna Azabal), who stars as the series’ conflicted heroine, torn between the Israeli general and her Palestinian terrorist boyfriend.

As Salam drives to his Jerusalem home from the Palestinian studio in Ramallah, he’s stopped at a checkpoint and grilled by the commander Assi (Yaniv Biton).

When Salam claims to be the “Tel Aviv on Fire” writer and shows Assi script pages, he discovers Assi’s wife and many other Jews are big fans.

Assi tells Salam exactly what’s wrong with the script with specific demands about the Israeli general. Once Salam conveys Assi’s suggestions, the series immediately perks up, and Salam replaces the head writer.

As he struggles to write, Assi becomes his secret conspirator, dictating dialogue, plot twists, even a forbidden Romeo and Juliet style romance between the Palestinian spy and Israeli general.

Salam gets laughs and sympathy as he transforms if not quite into a swan, at least into first-rate writer who knows how to get inside the heads of these characters — as long as he keeps getting story points from Assi.

Salam in finding his voice finds his long-lost girlfriend, Mariam (Maissa Abd-Elhadi).

As “Tel Aviv” pokes fun at the political infighting on the set, a mirror to the larger nation conflicts outside, director and co-writer Sameh Zoabi, a Palestinian, gleefully mocks Arab and Jewish stereotypes.

He deftly illustrates how art — even if a daily soap that traffics in clichés and stereotypes could ever be considered “art” — affects people’s lives, dreams and self-image.