Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi: To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it

'We talk about Palestine being a place that is very hard,” says Zoabi. “But I always remember people laughing all the time'

In ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’, Salam, played by Kais Nashif, left, meets checkpoint commander Assi (Yaniv Biton), who helps write the soap the film is named after. Courtesy Samsa Film 
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Tel Aviv on Fire is the most inflammatory film title of the many films slated to screen at the upcoming Venice and Toronto film festivals. When I put this to writer-director Sameh Zoabi he laughs.

The filmmaker is best-known for directing the 2010 comedy Man Without a Cell Phone, as well as writing the screenplay for Hany Abu-Assad's retelling of the Mohammed Assaf story in 2015's The Idol. "For the longest time, I didn't have a title," says Zoabi of his latest film, speaking from New York, where he teaches directing and screenwriting at the prestigious New York University Film School.

“The movie’s title is actually the name of the Palestinian soap opera that the main character works on in the film. The soap opera is set a few months before the 1967 war, and so it’s inspired by all the soap operas from that period created about the conflict. Those series, and many Egyptian movies from that time, all had titles that were so over the top. The title is provocative, but it wasn’t intended to be, it was intended to be in the spirit of these soaps,” Zoabi says.

His film is set in present-day Jerusalem. It tells the story of Salam, a charming 30-year-old Palestinian played by Kais Nashif, who works as an intern on a popular Palestinian soap opera, Tel Aviv on Fire, which is produced in Ramallah.

Every day Salam must pass through an Israeli security checkpoint to reach the television studios. It’s during this process that he meets the commander of the checkpoint, Assi (Yaniv Biton), and it turns out the commander’s wife is a huge fan of the show, and in order to impress her, the officer gets involved in the writing of the show. Salam quickly realises that Assi’s ideas could get him a promotion to become a screenwriter.

Being straightforward but humorous

The project started because Zoabi wanted to write and direct a film that dealt with the subject of competing perspectives. He wanted to tell a funny story that could relay some of the conflicting sensations he himself felt when growing up in Iksal, a Palestinian village near Nazareth: as a refugee in his own land.

Zoabi says of his confused identity, “They call us the Palestinian 1948, or Arab-Israelis, as many people, including the Israelis, prefer that term to separate us from the overall Palestinian people. So for us Palestinians living inside Israel, we are stuck in limbo in a kind of way.

“Just look at the new nation-state bill. We are 25 per cent of the population and are clearly not wanted. It’s now a law that it’s a Jewish state, but it has always been like this, that was our feeling when growing up, we are an indigenous people, but we are being brushed aside.”

For many filmmakers, the reaction to this reality has been to create hard-hitting dramas, but Zoabi is inspired by something the great silent era comedian, writer and director Charlie Chaplin said: “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”

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“We talk about Palestine being a place that is very hard,” says Zoabi. “But I always remember people laughing all the time. Even when discussing serious matters, the sentence always ended with the punchline of a joke. Particularly where I grew up, my family was always like that. That cultural humour of people who live with a reality that is politically unstable has always attracted me.”

This is evident in his first film, Man Without a Cell Phone, in which a community argues that a new mobile phone tower placed next to an olive grove is making people sick. When the film started to screen at festivals, Zoabi found himself in a funk, as industry response veered between calling it too Palestinian and insufficiently Israeli, and the complete opposite.

“The film was not art house, it was not a common projection of a Palestinian character going through the occupation in a serious way. I started to feel that this style of film is not fundable, and that maybe it’s not what the art house audience expect, they think comedy is not serious enough. I started to doubt myself.”

But it was the reaction of audiences to the film that convinced Zoabi he was on the right path. "Audiences said they hadn't seen anything like this," recalls Zoabi. "After a while it gave me confidence to go, 'Wait a second, this is what I like to do.' It's how I see the world. I'm not a politically hardcore person; I've always found humour in the craziness, because I think it's so bizarre and absurd that only comedy can make you say things that are straightforward. It's through this tool of being straightforward but humorous that Tel Aviv on Fire was born."

Inspiration behind the film

Zoabi, who in 2005 had won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his short film Be Quiet, also wanted to explore the Arab soap opera phenomenon and deal with the conundrum of making cinema in the golden age of television drama.

“Actually, I’m not a big fan of soaps,” he admits. “I watched them when I was a kid because it was the only thing available on television. In the past decade there has been a boom in the TV industry, the Dubai industry and all these big productions, like the much-anticipated Ramadan drama series. So, for me as a filmmaker who said I want to capture the heart of the Arab world and make films that are successful that everyone wants to see, I would come home and see my mum and family glued to these overacted, poorly made soaps, but for them, it was real and they were emotionally invested. I would think, ‘Wow, if that is what people are invested in, the film industry has no hope in the Arab world!’”

Tel Aviv on Fire was also, in part, inspired by Hollywood classics. "I guess I take a more Hollywood attitude to acting, which is still overacting but in a more subtle way. There is a lot of homage to classic Hollywood, because the soap opera [in the film] has a noir plot with a spy: it's influenced by The Maltese Falcon and the opening scene pays homage to Casablanca. I consciously brought my film experience and my American experience into the movie as well."

Tel Aviv on Fire also reflects on the fact that Zoabi himself is still trying to subconsciously grapple with the realities of his homeland and the struggles that come with making films: "I'm not interested in characters that are so set in their ways and determined from the beginning that they know what they want. I'm always more interested in people who are not sure what they really want."

Tel Aviv on Fire will premiere at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals next month before a wider international release