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Palestinian director seeks peace through soap operas

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A screen capture of a new comedy movie, “Tel Aviv on Fire”
In the new comedy “Tel Aviv on Fire,” a mild-mannered Palestinian named Salam (Kais Nashif) gets a job as a writer on a popular soap opera broadcast on Israeli TV. Suddenly he finds everyone has an opinion on the storyline, and everyone, including the commander of the checkpoint he has to pass through every day, wants to influence the outcome.
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

A new comedy about the Arab-Israeli conflict is built around a shared passion of many Palestinians and Israelis: soap operas. “Tel Aviv on Fire,” which opens in Minnesota this weekend, is a subversively funny film that uses a soap opera to explore the commonalities between two deeply divided communities.

Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi
Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Director Sameh Zoabi is a Palestinian Israeli.  He admits to mixed feelings about popular television dramas.

"I grew up watching soap operas. I didn't grow up watching movies because that was the only channel we could watch," he said. "Soap operas from Egypt, you know, from Lebanon, from Turkey."

But after studying film in college, Zoabi got a little snooty about soaps. That changed one day as he watched one with his mother. She got so swept up in the story she began weeping. 

"And I am like, 'Mom, are you really serious?' And she says, 'Yeah! Look at it! Look at it!' She is crying and I can't take it,” Zoabi said. “And for me this was like a moment: ‘Oh my God, this is brilliant for comedy.’"

Zoabi said life wasn't easy for his family, but they always seemed to be laughing. He grew up in a country divided — not just by cultures but also in the wake of the Oslo Accords.  

"The reality now in Palestine-Israel after Oslo is the reality of disconnect," he said. "There's walls, checkpoints. People don't really mix. So, for Palestinians growing up since Oslo, their only interaction with Israelis is with soldiers."

Zoabi studied filmmaking in the United States. He wanted to tell stories about the ordinary things in life. He says he found Americans had little understanding of Palestinian life.

"We have the common, human, basic needs that everyone has: wanting to raise a family, wanting to have a career, wanting to fall in love. The things that never make it to the public,” he said. “It's always about the troubles, about the killing, the throwing [of] stones, the checkpoints."

When he began writing he found people always read political overtones into his scripts. And often they would then subtly attempt to bend the storyline towards their own viewpoint, Zoabi said. 

"People want to change the narrative but pretend not to because everyone is worried about their image and how it comes across," he said. "And I was like, 'Wow, that's a brilliant idea for a film' and that is how 'Tel Aviv on Fire' was born."

“Tel Aviv on Fire” is about the making of a soap opera depicting a torrid affair between an Israeli officer and a Palestinian spy. 

In the film, Salam is a mild-mannered Palestinian hired to make sure the Arabic usage in the show is correct. Things don't go well on the first day when he trips and crashes into the scenery as they are taping.

However, through a series of misunderstandings, the producers quickly promote Salam to be a writer on the show, for which he’s not at all qualified. Salam has to hang onto the first job he has held in years because the woman he loves sees employment as a basic requirement for any boyfriend. 

To make things worse, Salam discovers everyone he knows watches the show. His friends, his relatives, even the Israeli commander of the checkpoint he passes every day had opinions about the storyline. 

Some are prepared to make his life miserable if they don't like what he writes.  

"So, it's kind of like a trap [that] I feel is very personal for me," he said.

How Salam negotiates a way out of this trap is both ingenious and hilarious. Zoabi also used the soap opera form to his own advantage.

"Because people in soap opera speak straightforward dialogue, there is no nuance, no subtext. I can say anything, politically, I want," he said. "At the end it's not me. It's the soap opera director that's doing that. So, allowing me both humor and politics in the film, and I think I was like, ‘Wow, this is it!'"

Zoabi said for all the tensions in Israel, the people in the various factions have much more in common than they have differences. Ultimately “Tel Aviv on Fire” is a film about hope.