Interview: Sameh Zoabi Talks ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ and the Importance of Satire

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With a playful tone that satirizes tensions between Israel and Palestine through the making of a soap opera, Sameh Zoabi’sTel Aviv on Fire” has been a success on the festival circuit, winning awards worldwide from Seattle to Venice. Now, this comedy aims for one of its biggest prizes yet, as the official Oscar submission for Luxembourg in Best International Feature. Ahead of the anticipated announcement of the shortlisted films, I spoke with Zoabi about his inspiration for the film and the unique social context that gave it its universal appeal. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Shane Slater: Is the film based on a real soap opera that similarly appeals to both Israelis and Palestinians?

Sameh Zoabi: The soap opera is based on a famous Egyptian soap opera that I grew up with in the 1980s. It was about an Egyptian spy in the 1950s up until the 1970s, living in the heart of Tel Aviv and pretending to be a Jew. It was one of the biggest soap operas that everyone loved. And actually, I used the key notes from the opening and closing credits from that same soap opera. But of course, I changed and twisted it.

This whole genre is one that I grew up with. I’m Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. They call us the Palestinians of ’48. All the Palestinians after 1948, who stayed in the borders of the state of Israel, became Israeli citizens to separate them from the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. So we live a particular reality where we were forced to become Israeli citizens in the 1960s. But also because of this, we were ripped apart from the rest of the Arab world and the Palestinian people. So in many ways, these TV shows served as a way to give us hope that one day Palestine would be liberated.

For Palestinians and Israelis to watch the same show, that also was true for a period of time when we were limited to two channels – an Israeli channel and an Arab channel coming from Jordan. There were a lot of Jews from the Arab world who came to Israel and maintained their Arab culture. They listened to famous Egyptian singers and watched Egyptian cinema. So there was a movie every Friday that Israeli TV projected, that both Arabs and Jews watched at the same time. Sadly, the reality of today is the opposite.

SS: What’s your take on the belief that political correctness is killing comedy?

SZ: I always complain about it! I think comedy is a great way of dealing with subjects that are repressed in people. Comedy is the best way to bring home these sentiments in many ways. My film works because of the stereotypes that exist. What Arabs think of Jews, what Jews think of Arabs. The whole “Arab kiss” in the film is based on what people think of other cultures. To break taboos, humor is essential.

SS: The film shows your protagonist drawing inspiration from everyday life. What is your writing process?

SZ: I think it is the same. Funny enough, it’s one of those things where you ponder things and never know when it will come into your writing. It’s not like an instant translation of an experience. I write for characters. I’m never drawn to big, epic stories. I always have to find the characters first. That love for people is the way I operate. I grew up in a house filled with people and culture that is very people-oriented.

SS: I was surprised to see Lubna Azabal in a lighter role, since she’s known for heavy dramatic work. How did she get involved with this film?

SZ: The idea started when we wanted someone to play the French-Arab woman coming to Palestine. We looked at all the actresses who could fit the role. When I met Lubna, she gave me inspiration for that diva personality. The switch between being real and being in a soap, I saw that shift in our meeting and thought it was fascinating. And also, she was every enthusiastic about someone offering her a comedy. It felt like the whole thing started to come together when I met her.

SS: How was the journey from missing out at the Ophir Awards to represent Israel and then being selected by Luxembourg for the Oscars?

SZ: I knew it was coming. Personally, once I won the Best Screenplay award at the Ophirs, I knew I wasn’t going to win the big one. So it wasn’t a surprise. I was prepared for it. The film was hard to make in Palestine. I shot 70% of the film in Luxembourg. And most of my creative crew is from Luxembourg. In fact, it makes me realize how universal the film is. It’s actually flattering for a filmmaker to able to produce a sentiment of a homeland somewhere else. There’s something to it. Even when I tell people in Israel and Palestine that I shot 70% of it in Luxembourg, they are like, “What?”

“Tel Aviv on Fire” is now available on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD.