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VENICE 2018 Orizzonti

Sameh Zoabi • Director

"An artist trapped in a political situation where everyone wants different things of him"


- VENICE 2018: Israeli-Palestinian filmmaker Sameh Zoabi breaks down his comedy Tel Aviv on Fire, which was unveiled as part of the Orizzonti programme at Venice

Sameh Zoabi  • Director
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

After rising to prominence with Man Without a Cell Phone [+see also:
film profile
, Israeli-Palestinian filmmaker Sameh Zoabi has presented a new arthouse comedy, Tel Aviv on Fire [+see also:
film review
interview: Sameh Zoabi
film profile
, in the Orizzonti section of the 75th Venice Film Festival. The feature, which portrays the trials and tribulations of a soap-opera screenwriter caught between a rock and a hard place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will also shortly be screened in the Discovery section of the 43rd Toronto Film Festival

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Cineuropa: What was the starting point for Tel Aviv on Fire?
Sameh Zoabi: My debut film, Man Without a Cell Phone, prompted some interesting reactions from the audience. For some, it was too political, for others not political at all; some found it too Palestinian, while others found it a bit too Israeli. When you’re a Palestinian and you write a film, there are some very specific expectations, and each person interprets everything in his or her own way. I thought it was an interesting dilemma, and I also had the added pressure of having to find a new idea for a film, a bit like the director in  [laughs]. I therefore had the idea of this artist trapped in a political situation where everyone wants different things of him. He doesn’t know what he wants yet, either, but he will gradually come to realise it. The beginnings of the film were therefore very personal, but it evolved over time, particularly with the addition of the world of the soap opera, and with all of the political and historical elements.

Where did the idea of incorporating a soap-opera shoot into the storyline come from?
Initially, it was a conceptual idea, and we spent nearly a year with my co-screenwriter working on the structure, on the plot of the soap opera, on its development and how that would affect the characters. I myself have watched a lot of soaps, as has my entire family, because it’s such a huge genre of TV in the Middle East. I grew up with these kinds of melodramatic shows that had a hint of espionage, and the one I created in the film is an homage to a very well-known Egyptian soap.

The movie also pays tribute to the Hollywood classics.
When I was writing the scenes for the soap opera and I was imagining them with this “cheap”, overly dramatic side, I thought it was going to drag the movie down and give it a bit of a trashy look, and that the contrast with reality would not work that well. And so I nudged the soap towards the film-noir genre. The Maltese Falcon is mentioned by one of the characters, and the opening scene is a straight-up homage to Casablanca. Several scenes are tributes to the Hollywood classics, and even the melodramatic performances by the actors in the soap are a nod to it. 

The film is also a mirror that reflects and distorts the profession of the screenwriter.
I am used to writing comedies, and I incidentally already have another screenplay ready to go, called Catch the Moon. I also co-wrote The Idol [+see also:
film profile
. The thing that works on the comedic level is having great simplicity and having a character thrust into a role that doesn’t really suit him. When a character like Salam is suddenly thrown into the responsibilities of writing a screenplay, without being prepared for it in the slightest, that immediately lends the film a comic tone that riffs on this situation. But there’s also the fact that becoming a screenwriter also entails taking on responsibilities in terms of your people. These two elements complement each other very well because of the Palestinian question, which is represented inaccurately in the media, as the image tends to sum it up as war. Yet, for me, everyday life is a lot more interesting than the overarching political mood. Characters who are grappling with reality are a lot more interesting than someone who knows exactly what he or she wants. A lot of Palestinians are to a certain extent in limbo today – the young generation grew up with the Oslo Accords, and that came to nothing. The “leaders” aren’t leading them anywhere, and there’s an overwhelming feeling of losing one’s bearings. I try to address this soul-searching through my films. 

The sequence where we see Salam stranded in the Palestinian territories and walking along the wall is a way of brutally re-immersing the film in reality, after it had been disguised by the comic tone.
I sowed the seeds of this scene to a certain extent with several subtle inserts because it’s true that it’s very easy to laugh at the encounters between Salam and the Israeli commander Assi at the checkpoint – it’s as if they are in a bubble, engrossed in thinking up the story for the soap together. But this bubble bursts suddenly when they disagree over the definition of Marwan’s character: is he a freedom fighter or a terrorist? Then reality comes back with a bang. It’s a total reality check.

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