Interview: Sameh Zoabi on Coming In Hot with “Tel Aviv on Fire”

Typically, it’s soap opera writers who feel confined by their medium, yearning to an escape for the generally more serious work of feature films, but in the case of Sameh Zoabi, there was freedom to be found going in the opposite direction for his latest “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Growing up in Israel, the writer/director had little choice but to watch them only having access to two channels on his family’s TV, but his exposure to a popular daytime sudser from Egypt connected the writer/director to his Palestinian roots in featuring Arab characters while giving him an early education in the power of storytelling when melodrama could get audiences to engage with cultural currents in a way the daily news could not.

“The characters say exactly what they feel and you can say whatever you want because that’s what soap is supposed to do, so you’d be saying things that are politically incorrect and nobody will ever put them in a real movie because they always worry about what they’re talking about,” Zoabi said, during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “And because it’s a soap, it loosens people up. It gives it a universality. I don’t think anyone in the world doesn’t know what a soap is.”

It’s how Zoabi found a way into making a film about the ever-contentious Palestinian/Israeli conflict that it seems everybody can agree on, becoming a sensation at festivals around the world since premiering last fall at the Venice Film Festival, centering on a lowly production assistant named Salam (Kais Nashif), who is still figuring out a similar situation. Recently hired by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) to work on the wildly popular sudser “Tel Aviv on Fire,” Salam is thrown into the unenviable position of monitoring the dialogue for possible offenses on the show, set during the lead-up to the Six-Day War in 1967. His constant doting leads to the departure of the show’s writer, requiring him to start penning episodes himself and while his creative life gets harder, his commute to work on the other side of the Israel/Palestine border in Ramallah gets easier when Assi, the Israeli captain at the checkpoint learns he can get early intel on the soap’s twists as turns for his wife, although the pressure to deliver on all fronts weighs heavily on the once carefree Salam. (When his former girlfriend (Maisa And Elhadi) hears he went into television, she assumes it has to do with fixing them.)

Zoabi gets away with giving his film the same name as the soap opera at its center when both are wildly entertaining, but the former has considerably more on its mind, with the absurd plot twists of the love triangle involving a Palestinian freedom fighter (Ashraf Farah), an Israeli general (Yousef Sweid) and a spy (Lubna Azabal) somehow less preposterous than the real world inspirations that make the scenario feel so risque. With the film arriving in the States, the filmmaker (and NYU professor) spoke about telling a personal story inside such a raucous comedy, creating a film for a broad audience that doesn’t pull its punches and being bold with the film’s style.

This might have the best premise of any film to deal with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict with someone tasked with having to monitor the right words on a soap opera to make sure it doesn’t offend. Was this actually inspired by script notes you’ve received on your own work?

It’s the story of my life. [laughs] Every time I make a movie since my first short, all my scripts I’ve written when I apply to funds or I finish the film, I’m under the microscope. I’m Palestinian, with Israeli citizenship, so I grow up inside and speak Arabic and Hebrew. I access the Israeli funds to make my films so I can access the European funds, and my main character is Palestinian, so the Israelis read the script wanting to make sure I’m not turning too Palestinian on them and Palestinians will always look at you, and because he’s working with Israelis, [wonder] is he selling out? The Europeans…all their notes are about balance. They don’t want to upset anybody. So all the time when I make a movie, I’m trapped with these ideas and all the feedback is around this and everybody’s worried about their image. And I’m like, “This is a perfect film. Perfect character.” [laughs]

And you think it’s over [now that it’s coming out in theaters]? Actually now it is the biggest dilemma. Making the film was one step forward in that direction, but now the film is out and succeeding, if you get nominated for the Oscar, you’ll be nominated as the Israeli film, but you’re a Palestinian, so that fight that Salam is having [in the film] is going to happen 10 times more. [laughs] You want to preserve your identity as a Palestinian in the film, but then you have the reality of the financing and where you live and so it’s a very personal film in many ways. I know it’s a broad comedy, but for me, it’s a very intimate, personal film, like “8 1/2” for Fellini. Not to compare.

The film’s style allows you in immediately, especially the music, which I haven’t been able to get out of my head for a year. What was it like to work on?

That was the hardest thing because the film was a co-production through Europe. I had to choose certain crew members from certain countries, so I got most of my money from Luxembourg and I had to choose a composer from Luxembourg, but Luxembourg is a small town, you know? They don’t have a lot of musicians. There’s just one or two and I started working with them and we couldn’t get to that place where I wanted. There was only one person that had more experience that knew the producers, but he said “no” to the project a few times because he was busy with other big projects. But then when we finished editing, the producers said, “Let’s try him again.” And when he saw the movie, he says, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

I was very happy because Andre [Dziezuk, the composer] was very, very collaborative, and I play music myself as well, so I wanted something so specific because you have to go to the soap [opera world], you have to have reality and you have to mix the themes because there’s a contrast, but then towards the end of the film, visually soap and reality starts to get foggy [and blend]. I wanted that same feeling in the music when towards the end, you start to get a little not sure of what is what. The opening [musical hook] of the soap is actually taken from an Egyptian soap opera I was inspired by – it’s about an Egyptian spy in the ‘70s who comes to Tel Aviv and it was the biggest hit in the middle east, so anyone from the Middle East will hear the first cue lines of the music and know it immediately, and [since] I wanted that music so bad, how I built around it was the hardest part. But I have to give it to Andre. He’s an amazing composer and has a great sensibility. Music brings the humor to a different level, and we were working with many levels the whole time. It was really, really fascinating.

That blurring of lines between the soap opera and the reality behind the scenes is done really subtly, but effectively, not only through the music, but visually as well. How did you go about introducing that gradually?

It was basically when I decided the story of the soap takes place in ’67, so already the costumes and all that [will be colorful] visually. When we built apartments like [the Israeli General] Yehuda’s office, her apartment, the French hotel, it’s already bringing contrast [between the real world and the soap] by the [exaggerated] props and the wardrobe, so the mise-en-scene works wonderfully, but then how do you shoot it? That was the big dilemma because everyone assumes, “Oh, because it’s a Palestinian TV show, they probably don’t have money. They shoot on location. It’s badly acted.” I said, “No, no, no, let’s break stereotypes.” If the film is about breaking stereotypes, let’s start visually.

I took inspiration from the script when they talk about “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca,” so I said, “Let’s shoot the soap like it’s a classic Hollywood movie, but let’s give it an Almodovar look.” Then for real life, I told my [cinematographer], there’s not a big effort trying to stylize the look, but also the camera work has to be smooth — it has to be fluid, so it evolved into this idea where instead of shooting handheld, it was shot with a tripod with a loose head so almost it doesn’t feel too rigid like the soaps. It feels a little bit more fluid like the character [of Salam]. He’s someone who maneuvers around to find his voice and I feel like the camera has to feel like that. Then towards the end, because I always say the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is like a soap opera — it never ends — that’s something that I wanted to play with in the film, so the shooting style has shifted a little bit. It becomes more stiff like a soap, with little zooms like in the last scene where [reality] feels like a soap.

Those are strong decisions and if the film didn’t work this way, everything would fall apart because I had all this resistance. People said, “You can’t do that. That’s too risky..” But I always believe as a director, and I tell my students this all the time, you’re always concerned about the characters’ arc in the story — not just the main character, also the antagonist and the other characters, [and you have to ask] do they evolve in the film? And you have to be able to track that evolution. The most important thing is to have a visual arc. Even if people might not notice it, it will affect the experience. Sometimes these things work and sometimes they don’t, but as a director, it gives you a stronger hand in moving forward and making decisions. I always bring up Sidney Lumet and “12 Angry Men”. The camera starts low and then eye level —he had an arc to it, and if you watch the film, it’s claustrophobic, and yes, the acting is good, the script is good, but visually, all of that is enhanced in the film [by the visual arc]. So I believe nothing can be random on screen, and luckily, I think most of these ideas are there [and can be picked up on]. Maybe a few are missed, it’s fine, but I will contribute the success of this film and its accessibility to these ideas as well.

Since you mention teaching, you’ve been a professor at NYU for some time. Has being abroad changed your perspective on the conflict?

Yeah, absolutely. My years in New York allowed me a certain distance to be able to see the comedy, although I don’t think it’s the distance. I think it’s a natural progression to my way of living. We laugh all the time. Palestinians are very funny people. They wake up in the morning and don’t talk about misery. They talk about how to move forward and humor and jokes are part of our daily lives. That’s why I wanted to make comedies because it captures that reality well and being away allowed me the ability to write universally and not be local. I write in English. I only write the dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew right before shooting, I translate it, and I work with my co-writer [Dan Kleinman] as well, who’s a professor at the University and doesn’t have a personal or political investment in the region, so you work on the basics of story and story only. That helped me and I think teaching helps you a lot too, talking about finding your visual style as a director, it becomes a way of being self-aware of what you do and being more precise.

You find a clever way to show the different generational attitudes towards the conflict through the relationship between Salam and his uncle Bassam, who produces the show. Was that a foundational part of the story?

Now, you hit the sensitive chord because up until casting, the producer [character] was almost 60 years old. And I’ve got to tell you I don’t have a political agenda that I’m trying to push through. The [politics] evolve through the characters and there was a moment where I was looking at [the uncle] character while casting and I was like, “What is his incentive in all of this?” And then I realized the producer is the representation of the Palestinian authority that was in exile and many of them like Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PLO, are in their eighties and seventies and they settled in Ramallah, and they accepted Oslo, but they are helpless. They can’t do anything. The occupation is still there. The Israelis enter Ramallah whenever they want. They can’t do anything. And that’s when I realized Sam is someone who when he was young, he was Marwan in the [soap opera]. He was the freedom fighter in the ‘60s, but now he’s settled into this job and he has his own dramatic objective to reignite the fire he had once when he was young through the soap.

When I understood that, I started to talk about [that] generation, about the major question people ask me is what’s going to happen [to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict]? And I say only when this generation is given the torch to the generation that lives there, like Salam, they will be able to write the second season [of the show] and move forward. Now we still live in that [time of] Netanyahu/Abu Mazen, which is the generation that doesn’t have a vision. All their job is, for 20 years now, is to maintain the status quo. Nobody really is there to resolve the issue, so I wanted to play with those ideas – that it’s time to pass to the next generation, which [in the film] is Assi and Salam – Assi, who lives at the checkpoint and says, “I don’t want to sit on a checkpoint anymore” and for Salam, he says, “I’m sure there is a solution that is not a bombing or surrender,” and forge forward. That’s why I think it’s a vision that sounds idealistic, but it’s what’s needed now, and this is why I think the film is received very well among Israelis and Palestinians because I think they are ready. I think people are fed up with the reality of managing the status quo.

“Tel Aviv on Fire” opens on August 2nd in Los Angeles at the Encino Town Center, the Laemmle Royal and the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and New York at the Quad Cinema.

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