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Given how illuminating comedies about impossible situations can be, it’s a great pity so few deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When they do crop up, like “Tel Aviv on Fire,” reactions tend to be relief – “Finally we can laugh about this!” – or uncritical support coming from a well-meaning yet ultimately condescending place – “Isn’t it great these people can make a comedy!” Both responses will attach themselves to Sameh Zoabi’s genial satire about a Palestinian soap opera writer and the Israeli security officer who tries to influence the direction of a TV show’s plot. Fitfully amusing yet unable to withstand close inspection, the movie will be a popular item in festivals and showcases, though Israeli money means Arab play is impossible.
Zoabi’s imagining of the soap, itself called “Tel Aviv on Fire,” is the film’s masterstroke, reproducing all the outrageous plot twists and visual excesses of the genre. The setting is a nostalgic spy story in the lead-up to the Six-Day War, with Manal going undercover as “Rachel” and seducing Israeli general Yehuda in order to infiltrate the enemy and report their plans back to her lover, Palestinian resistance fighter Marwan. The show is a huge success on both sides of the dividing wall, and producer Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) aims to keep it that way. He’s hired his unassertive nephew Salam (Kais Nashef) to help the actors with their Hebrew pronunciation so as not to lose the show’s significant Israeli audience, notwithstanding the plot’s clear anti-Zionist agenda.
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Salam gains the favor of the soap’s star, Tala (Lubna Azabal), when he points out a linguistic error in one of her lines; puffed up by the feeling that he’s made a contribution to the show, he claims to be a writer for the series when stopped by border...
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