Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Sameh Zoabi’s Tel Aviv on Fire tells the story of Salam (Kais Nashif), a production assistant who somehow weasels his way into writing for a Palestinian soap opera. The show is a romantic spy story in the run-up to the Six-Day War, as a Palestinian spy (Lubna Azabel) finds herself caught in a love triangle between her handler, Marwan (Ashraf Farah), who knows her true identity, and the Israeli general that she’s meant to seduce and drain of his secrets, who knows her by her Jewish nom de guerre — Rachel Ashkenazi.
Will Rachel be able to choose between her handler and Gen. Yehuda Edelman (Yousef Sweid)? Will she be found out, by Edelman or by others, before it’s too late? And can she stop the coming strike by the Israel Defense Forces?
Of course, the premise is as ridiculous as that of any soap, with the added factor that few of the producers, actors or writers speak particularly strong Hebrew, or know what Israelis — let alone Israeli soldiers — are like in their private moments. Salam, bumbling, but with a good, beaten-down Elliot Gould kind of look, is only able to be on the show as a PA because his uncle, Bassam (Nadim Sawalha), is the producer.
What spurs Salam’s promotion to writer is that he seems to be the only one on set who has a proper understanding of Hebrew, as is made clear by his insistence that Edelman would not compliment Ashkenazi by telling her that she looks “explosive.”
What keeps him in the job beyond his initial save is a chance encounter with a checkpoint guard named Assi (Yaniv Biton). Each day, Salam passes through the checkpoint to get from his home in East Jerusalem to the set in Ramallah, with varying degrees of harassment.
After Salam is pulled out of line because of some suspicious material in his bag — it turns out to be scripts for the show, which Assi’s wife happens to love — the two men strike a deal: Assi will help Salam write more believable and humanizing scenes with the general in exchange for Palestinian hummus and an increasingly insistent say over the direction of the plot.
Salam is hoping that his success on the show will help him win back an old flame, Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi); Assi wants to show his wife (Shifi Aloni) that he has some clout with the creators of the show, which he’ll be able to prove by telling her plot points before they happen.
It goes predictably from there. Assi, who seems to remember more each day the power he holds over Salam, eventually kidnaps Salam and takes the ID that allows him to move through the checkpoint, with the promise that it will only be returned if Rachel Ashkenazi chooses General Edelman over her Palestinian lover.
On the other end, the funders of the soap opera are becomingly increasingly angry over the more-humanized Israeli characters, and declare that, under no circumstances will Rachel and the general end up together. In fact, at their wedding, Ashkenazi will blow them both up in act of martyrdom.
Salam pleads with Bassam to allow the wedding to happen unimpeded. Part of it is self-preservation, but the bulk of his case is also the case that the movie makes about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians more generally: Why must we entomb ourselves with the old characters and the old storylines? At a certain point, venerating them with the goal of inspiration actually works against you, because, in reality, what you’ve done is occlude the possibility that you might do something different.
A compromise is reached that makes everyone momentarily happy. A ceasefire, if you will.
Tel Aviv on Fire is a fundamentally sweet and mostly funny movie that, at moments, imagines itself to be a bit more. More often that not, it simply wonders why we can’t just try to get along. Your guess is as good as mine.