Still from Tel Aviv on Fire

'Tel Aviv on Fire,' by Sameh Zoabi '05 and Professor Dan Kleinman Wins Awards, Praise

BY Zoe Contros Kearl, August 12, 2019

Alumnus Sameh Zoabi's ‘05 and Professor Dan Kleinman’s film Tel Aviv on Fire opened to glowing reviews and has been nominated for four Israeli “Ophir” Awards. Tel Aviv on Fire, directed and co-written by Zoabi and co-written by Kleinman, is a comedy-drama satire film. The film premiered internationally at the 75th Venice International Film Festival in the Orizzonti section, where lead cast member Kais Nashef won the Best Actor award. The Israeli premiere was at the Haifa International Film Festival, where the film won the Best Film and Best Screenplay awards. In the United States, Tel Aviv on Fire has shown in three film festivals: Seattle, Minneapolis, and Sarasota. It won the audience award at all three. 


Tel Aviv on Fire tells the tale of Salam, an inexperienced young Palestinian man who becomes a writer on a popular soap opera after a chance meeting with an Israeli soldier. Salam’s career is on the rise until the soldier and the soap opera’s financers disagree about the show’s ending. Salam is caught in the middle and the story unfolds. 


“Genial mirth and the nightmarish gloom of the Middle East do not sound like natural companions, but the droll and delightful Tel Aviv on Fire has made the impossible possible.” - Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times


Zoabi’s director’s statement reads, “As a Palestinian writer- director who tells stories about daily reality in my homeland, I carry with me a certain ethical and political responsibility. I became aware of this responsibility through sharing my previous films with local and international audiences. I saw how easily film can bring out the Palestinian-Israeli clash of narratives. There were those who thought my films were 'too Palestinian,' 'insufficiently Israeli' or the total opposite. We make films to tell stories and communicate a perspective on the world as we know it, but the interpretation of our work is ultimately beyond our control. With Tel Aviv on Fire, I decided to write a story dealing directly with the subject of conflicting perspectives. My central character is an aspiring writer who struggles to find his voice and inspiration in a politically charged reality. 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.’”


"Can anyone make a sweet and silly comedy out of a subject as grim and intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian situation? For Sameh Zoabi, the director of Tel Aviv on Fire, the answer to the question is another question. What else is there?" - A.O. Scott, The New York Times


Sameh Zoabi was born in 1975 in Iskal, a Palestinian village near the city of Nazareth. He graduated from Tel Aviv University with a dual degree in Film Studies and English Literature before earning a Fulbright Fellowship to earn his MFA in Filmmaking from Columbia University in 2005. With films like Tel Aviv On Fire, Zoabi seeks to invoke humor in difficult narratives, stating, "We talk about Palestine being a place that is very hard, but I always remember people laughing all the time." In addition to filmmaking, Zoabi is an adjunct professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Hunter College, and Columbia University's MFA program, teaching courses in direction, production, and screenwriting.


Dan Kleinman taught for twenty years as a member of the full-time screenwriting faculty at Columbia (1996-2016). During that time, he was chair of Film for five years and acting dean of the School of the Arts for three years. Prior to coming to Columbia, he taught for twenty years at NYU. He has been a mentor at the Sundance screenwriting lab in Utah and at screenwriting labs in Belgium and Uganda. He was a visiting faculty member at RITS in Brussels and at La Femis in Paris. His first produced screenplay was Rage (Warner Brothers) in 1972. His most recent film, Tel Aviv on Fire, had its world premiere at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. The film has won Best Film and Best Screenplay at the Haifa Film Festival, Grand Prize and Critics' Prize at the International Festival of Comedy Films, the François Chalais Prize for screenwriting at the RCC Festival in Cannes, Grand Prize at the Saint-Jean-de-Luz Festival, and the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Asian Screenplay of 2018.