Comedy as survival: An interview with ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ director Sameh Zoabi

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Sameh Zoabi is a filmmaker who is as deliberate as he is optimistic. His new film, “Tel Aviv on Fire,” follows a soap opera production studio in Ramallah and an unlikely creative partnership between a burgeoning Palestinian writer and an Israel Defense Forces officer. The characters get pulled into writing a spy intrigue-turned-love triangle soap opera set during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. But soon, everyone wants to use the soap opera to express their own political vision, and the struggles of present catch up with their artistic endeavors.

The film’s humor is both integral and intricate, with certain punchlines sustained across the entire story and fast-paced, ping-pong dialogue. In an interview with The Daily Californian, the Palestinian writer-director spoke about his writing process, his outlook on life and the challenges of making comedic films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Zoabi grew up speaking Arabic, with Hebrew as a second language and English as a third. “Tel Aviv on Fire” jumps back and forth between Arabic and Hebrew in almost every scene, and there are also scenes that take place in English and French. When asked about his writing process approaching this multilingual format, Zoabi described how he writes his films entirely in English. The film isn’t translated into the languages the actors speak on-screen until much later. He didn’t think about “Tel Aviv on Fire” from a local language perspective.

“We don’t translate jokes,” Zoabi said. “We work with ideas.” This universal approach to humor gives Zoabi the opportunity to tweak the translations to make the humor funnier and more nuanced for local viewers, without “killing the joke internationally.”

When asked about how the film was received in Nazareth — the closest city to Iksal, Zoabi’s hometown — the writer-director smiled. ”People loved it in Nazareth,” he said. “It was (an) interesting moment for them to see themselves on the big screen.”

But while “Tel Aviv on Fire” has been “collecting awards and good press,” the subject matter requires a deliberate, yet delicate, hand. “It criticizes the reality, and people don’t like that,” Zoabi said. He chose to make “Tel Aviv on Fire” a comedy because humor allows people to “loosen up a little bit and look at their reality differently.” He said that “if the humor doesn’t translate, you’re screwed.”

Zoabi’s hope is that people will watch the film, laugh, and then go home and reflect. He said his ideal audience will walk away thinking, “OK, I’ve learned something, I want to change the reality, I think we can fix this.”

But Zoabi’s emotions on “the reality” itself are mixed. On the one hand, he describes how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it affects people on a daily basis, “is a very tragic reality.” But on the other hand, he challenges the status quo, saying the conflict “begins to feel like a big soap opera that is never going to end.”

The director spoke about how the peace process he grew up hoping for is dead, and how people are now living in “a bubble reality.” He characterized this reality with images of division, walls, checkpoints — spaces where Israelis and Palestinians don’t meet. 

As Zoabi sees it, the goal is no longer to solve the situation, but to manage it. This means keeping people separate and building divides rather than bridging them. “God forbid, if they (Palestinians and Israelis) got together, they might like each other,” he said ruefully. “And all our policies might be in trouble.”

Zoabi doesn’t want the world to play the divide anymore. He believes that people caught in the conflict miss leading a normal life. “People want it,” he said. “But we don’t have the leadership to take us there.”

In light of this stagnancy, it is interesting to consider where Zoabi’s optimism and humor come from. He gave two reasons to explain the hopefulness of “Tel Aviv on Fire.” One reason is to disrupt the status quo. In Zoabi’s artistic ethos, nothing is arbitrary. He dislikes drawing from a world of randomness and grounds himself in structure. He positions “humor as a way of survival and a personal outlook,” but he also mobilizes comedy as a disarming tactic.

The other is his own personality. Zoabi describes himself as an optimist and sees how his upbringing has had a significant impact on the tone of his films. “My family laughs all the time — they never really linger on misery. It’s a way of survival.”

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].