Outside the power-packed annual winter Atlanta Jewish Film Festival schedule, AJFF Selects sponsors a handful of films sporadically throughout the year. On June 19, “Tel Aviv on Fire” smoldered and blazed at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. Like a wheel within a wheel, the film, told from the Palestinian point of view, followed a young Arab filmmaker, entangling his own life with the production of a cheesy soap opera in search of its own ending.
The movie was creative in that characters on both sides use humor to tackle some sensitive topics such as Palestinians speaking of taking back Jerusalem, hair loss during chemo, and portrayal of an IDF officer as a buffoon. Also, do Arabs really kiss with no tongue?
Local filmmaker David Lewis introduced the movie by explaining its use of comedy as an icebreaker.
After the screening, avid moviegoer Larry Pett said, “Loved it. … A great blend of humor and romance without heavy-handed politics. Made me feel that there still might be hope for Middle East accommodation if the leaders can just chill.”
Yes, there was nervous-laugh twittering alongside genuine guffawing. Can one laugh at a wedding scene wherein the bride’s bouquet has a bomb that might blow up the IDF general groom? Well, you can, if it’s framed within the protective coating of a soap opera. There’s something about that green and white flag in the background that causes some teeth clenching. Can you laugh at “the Arabs got lost at Oslo”?
A particularly funny shtick was the use of hummus as a mutual Israeli-Arab food. The young Arab soap opera screenwriter suffers the humiliation of having to pass through Israeli security or being too late to get “over the wall” at the checkpoint. He forms a friendship of sorts with the IDF general guard by bringing him a “luscious” bowl of special hummus. The audience witnesses him dumping a 6-year-old can of the stuff – saved from the Intifada “when Arabs didn’t have access to fresh food” (political dig there) – adding his own herbs and lemon juice to present it as a gourmet “prize.”
Not that the Israelis are so noble. The IDF general takes interest in the soap opera plot over and above his own sense of duty.
The symbolism doesn’t have to be subtle such as whether the cigarette lighter in the last scene is a real hand grenade or a toy hand grenade.
Shellie Schmals, AJFF’s film programming manager, felt positive about the reaction to the film. “While attending the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, I saw ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ and had a good hunch that our AJFF audience would enjoy it. The film is timely, as it captures the stress of living between the Israeli and Palestinian borders. I appreciated how humor is incorporated throughout the story. We see the world through the eyes of Salam, a 30-something Palestinian slacker whose every move to be more impressive becomes a comedic misstep, including [with] his bosses and love interest. You find yourself rooting for him, even through the chaos he’s creating. The plot also provides an entertaining look behind the scenes on a soap opera with amazing 1960s sets!”
The movie is plucky, the musical score is particularly lively, and true romance blooms. If only this question can be answered, “Is the real food of love figs or tomatoes”?
“The interesting thing about a soap opera is the way the plot twists and turns in unbelievable and unexpected directions,” said audience member Simone Wilker. “This movie makes you think that it’s not only soap operas that are crazy, but so is real life.”