Born near Nazareth, Israel, director-writer Sameh Zoabi now lives in Brooklyn and teaches at NYU. His second feature, “Tel Aviv on Fire,” screens in Venice’s Orrizonte competition and then at TIFF.
Your first feature, “Man Without a Cell Phone” (2010), had a comedic tone like “Tel Aviv.”
My first feature was inspired by my upbringing, I was not necessarily seeking to make a comedy, but rather to be truthful to a reality I grew up with as a Palestinian. A constant sense of despair hovers, yet there is spirit and a sense of humor around the dinner table. With “Tel Aviv on Fire,” the story deals directly with the subject of conflict perspectives. Similar to my previous film, the tone is comedic — not to make light of a situation that is more dire than ever before, but rather to use the insights that comic exaggeration can bring. As Charlie Chaplin put it, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”
“Tel Aviv on Fire” uses the ingenious device of the titular soap opera to connect its multiple levels.
Growing up inside Israel, disconnected from the Arab world, we had limited Arabic shows, mostly Egyptian shows. They had the best soap operas, particularly during Ramadan. The self-conscious/straight-forward nature of soap is a great tool for comedy and for tackling political issues head-on.
What sort of challenges are involved in a Luxembourg-France-Israel-Belgium co-production?
I was very fortunate to have the producers I had and the international crew, who all connected with the script. It was a first indication that the film has universal appeal. But of course, many challenges come your way as a director-writer, and they made me connect more with my main character. I found my personal voice through him; the limitations he has as someone who works on the soap turned out to be like mine making the movie. As a result, I kept working on the script and my last draft was a few days before shooting.
Your name is attached to the Gaza-set dramedy “Catch the Moon.”
This project came to me as a director after my first feature. It is a drama but with a strong comedic tone, similar to my films. I fell in love with the script and I have been developing it for the last five years. The script is written by Anne Koski, and we have been working together with Sixteen Films in the U.K. as the main producers. In a subtle way, it deals with the urgent humanitarian crisis that people in Gaza face nowadays. We have all our partners, are working on a final draft and will go into financing this fall.
What else is in the pipeline?
Being based in New York for many years now, I feel ready for the next phase in my career: to develop U.S.-based projects for both film and television. I just signed a development deal for a TV show set in Brooklyn, and I am eyeing a possible U.S.-based film project with Dan Kleinman, my writing partner on “Tel Aviv on Fire.”