Sameh Zoabi is dashing between the coasts, making appearances at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and its equivalents in L.A. and Toronto. On Aug. 2, when his new film “Tel Aviv on Fire,” opens here, he’ll be back in his adopted part-time home of Brooklyn, ushering in his third film. Although his previous efforts, “Man Without a Cell Phone” (2010) and “Under the Same Sun” (2013) were well received, his new film has the potential to be the breakout hit that puts the young Palestinian writer-director on the cinematic map. It’s a wry and sprightly comedy about a TV soap opera that turns checkpoint etiquette and the Middle East conflict into sources of wit.
Jewish Week: You hadn’t actually planned on a career in film.
Sameh Zoabi: Actually, it was the farthest thing from my mind. I was a physics major, into mathematics, and I was accepted to the Technion. But you never know. I always felt I wanted to be part of the media. My father is a farmer, I have five sisters and three brothers and I’m the youngest. We didn’t grow up on art. But it was always somewhere in the background. So I said, ‘Let me educate myself,’ and I went to Tel Aviv University because it was the only school offering a BA in film. ‘I’ll learn film studies and then I’ll study English literature.’
I think it goes back to when I was growing up. Characters are what I [always] loved in film. Our house was always filled with people, not only sisters and brothers but uncles and aunts and friends.
You received a Fulbright to study film at Columbia University. Suddenly you’re in New York, a town that is filled with movies. What kind of change was that?
New York allowed me to rediscover what story I wanted to tell. I was the only Palestinian in my class at Tel Aviv University, not the most comfortable situation. New York is such an international city, half of the class were international students; suddenly I’m not the only person in the class “with an accent.” I wanted to tell stories about where I come from, but our lives on screen as Palestinians are stereotypes: religious repression, women’s inequality, rock throwers or suicide bombers. That’s not the way I grew up; that’s not my experience. We grew up laughing all the time. We were always looking for the light at the end of the tunnel and trying to find the humor in our lives.
I realized then that I have a responsibility to do more than just tell a story [but] to rediscover my identity, and that ignites the whole trajectory of my films.
In “Tel Aviv on Fire,” Salam (the protagonist, a writer on the eponymous soap opera) is constantly poised between two warring camps — on the set, in his love life and in his identity. Is that constant sense of conflict an accurate reflection of your own sense of life for Palestinians?
This is the reality I wanted to depict. You never see that reality on screen. People want to keep their jobs, impress the girl, pay the bills. These are basic human needs — we all have them, Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, people aren’t as interested in that.
We can’t be naïve about the policies of the last 20 years. … Nobody is interested in a solution. The whole us-against-them mentality helps create that divide. No one is interested in bringing people together. If we do, they might like each other, God forbid. And that’s on both sides.
I wanted [the film] to empower that attitude. Assi [the Israeli officer who has repeated run-ins with Salam] doesn’t want to be on the checkpoint, Salam doesn’t want to have to use a gun. They’re building more walls around themselves. I wanted to give a voice to the people who used to talk to one another before Oslo. They used to broadcast an Egyptian film every Friday on the local TV, and the Palestinians and the Israelis would hang out talking about the film. There was that hope that we could find something and try to move forward. That needs a voice.
“Tel Aviv on Fire” opens on Friday, Aug. 2 at the Quad Cinema and Landmark 57 West.