When the film “Tel Aviv on Fire” comes to the IAC Cinematec in Tenafly on Sunday night (see box), it arrives with a passel of awards, including best screenplay from the Israeli Film Academy, and best film from festivals as diverse as Haifa, Seattle, and Venice.
It is a comedy about a West Bank Palestinian who, after an encounter with an Israeli soldier, finds himself writing a popular soap opera. Of course, it’s never that easy, and complications ensue, as the writer is caught in a conflict between the Israeli soldier and the backers of the series.
“I had been nurturing this idea for some time now,” the director, Sameh Zoabi, said. “I kind of had an awakening one day when I started making movies. For my first feature” — that would be “Man Without a Cell Phone” — “I received money from the Israeli state film fund. Being a Palestinian but also an Israeli citizen comes with a sense of being under a microscope. The Israelis are watching you, making sure you’re not turning too Palestinian on them. Palestinians are watching to see if you’ve changed your path because of money.
“This idea of an artist trapped in a political dilemma was fascinating for me. When you come from such a particular political place and perspective, everyone is worried about how they look on screen. I wanted to play with that idea, and the movie was born.
“I lived those two worlds vividly. I know how to live the two perspectives.”
Mr. Zoabi did not have a burning desire to make films as a child.
“It was not the path I was pursuing,” he said. “I thought I was a physics and mathematics major. I was accepted to the Technion. But something in me felt I wanted to learn more about the world, about stories. I did my B.A. in Tel Aviv University. I majored in English literature and film studies. I was watching films and studying film theory and I liked it after a while. I felt I had stories to tell.
“I got a Fulbright to pursue my masters in film at Columbia University. Only when I was in New York was I aware of what it means to be a filmmaker. When I made my first film, it was so rewarding.”
As for his inspiration, “I always joke that my grandfather was the barber of the village. When I came into the world he had passed away already. I heard people talk about the little stories he had, how people used to go to him to cut their hair just to hear the stories. Maybe my subconscious interest comes from that. Maybe I’m the barber of the new generation.”
Mr. Zoabi now lives in Brooklyn. He teaches screenwriting and directing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“I have my Middle Eastern projects,” he said. “Now I’m in L.A., trying to pursue some projects in the U.S. as well. The exposure of ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ has allowed me to look into making my first English-language film.
“My father was a farmer. I grew up around the Galilee. Usually you learn in your village, you stay there. There’s a sense of segregation in many ways. Different bubbles I guess. Each community lives in their own towns unless they have to do bigger things. You can live in the village and be self sufficient.”
This was the setting of “Man Without a Cell Phone,” revolving around generational conflict in an Arab village where conflict erupts over the plan to install a cell phone tower.
“After high school, you get out and interact with the larger Israel,” he said. “You understand the policies that exist now, especially now, about creating bubbles where people cannot connect to each other any more. It’s easy to hate, easy to blame, easy to control, when two communities live in parallel. All you have are ideas of what they are and what they think and what they want. It was a very big moment when I realized how divisive the policies are, and how as an artist it’s your responsibility to make films and tell stories that remind people of their basic humanity in the hope they can find a way to connect and end this gridlock.”
Mr. Zoabi said that his film’s focus on the writer of a soap opera reflects his experience growing up watching soap operas from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. (Now, he says, an expanded array of TV channels gives Israeli Arabs access “to dubbed soap operas from Turkey, India, and South America.”)
“There was a moment when I was watching a Turkish soap opera with my mom,” he said. “She was crying and I was laughing, because I thought it was overacting. I thought it would be perfect for my movie. People who watch movies think soap operas are silly, so it will get them laughing. After all, it’s only soap, it’s not a real film.”
His family and friends have traveled to Nazareth and Haifa to see his films; his village doesn’t have a movie theater.
He’s pleased with the response his film has received from Jewish audiences.
“So far, they all loved it. That kind of film seems to be hitting home for both Palestinian Israelis and Jewish audiences around the world. To be blunt, everyone knows the occupation exists. It’s not a secret. People are uncomfortable talking about it. They’re torn between their loyalty to Israel and their values of democracy and equality for all. Sometimes they don’t want to see that reality when it’s presented in a very straightforward way. You can’t have them watch a movie and feel they’re doing something wrong and cannot do anything about it. Because of the humor and comedy of it, this film speaks to the Palestinians who don’t want to see the reality, and the Jewish or Israeli audiences who are aware but don’t want to be.
“Because of the humor, the film allows a much easier way to talk about the issue. There’s hunger from all communities for an end to this. People have this desire to end it but clearly on a political and economical level, nobody is even talking about a solution either. They’re either offering blame, or a vision to control and maintain the status quo.”
What: Screening of “Tel Aviv on Fire,” followed by conversation with director Sameh Zoabi, presented by IAC Cinametec
Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue, Tenafly
When: Sunday, January 19, at 7 p.m.
How much: $20