Why This, Why Now?
Going to college for theatre, the most frustrating phrase that I hear on a daily basis is “why this play, why now?” It’s asked whenever you write a script, or whenever a student-run theatre company considers a new production. The idea is that you could not only have to justify a script’s aesthetic quality, you also need a reason why it fits into the current zeitgeist. It has to advocate for some issue, or draw attention to someone who deserves it, or generally comment on the way we live.
I’ve written before about my issues with this argument. How I think that a world where every piece of art was topical would be exhausting. How art is supposed to stand the test of time, and how tying writing to a current moment robs it of that. And how, if your script only works against a specific societal backdrop, it probably isn’t that good.
However, I might have to eat my words. There’s a new movie out that I find incredibly impressive because of the way it comments about the way we live in 2019. The catch? It’s about the pointlessness of attempting to solve problems with movies.
Tel Aviv on Fire is a new comedy about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It’s about a fictional soap opera that is enjoyed by people on both sides of the West Bank. When the creators realize this, they try to start using the show to comment on the issue, only to realize that a nuanced television depiction of the problem is impossible. A film that show’s everyone’s point of view will end up making everyone mad. The movie is a light, breezy comedy, but the message is cutting. The filmmakers are arguing that the only way to make a topical film is to be lazily one-sided, so we may as well not try.
It’s brilliant, because the fictional TV-show-within-the-movie starts out as a triumphant success. It’s a low-end spy thriller, sure. But just making something that can appeal to everyone, including sworn enemies, is a success in and of itself. For some reason, though, we live in a world where such a thing is frowned upon. To be truly respected, you’re better off badly commenting on an issue than doing a good job of making something apolitical.
I’m the first to admit my biases. Just based on my own writing style, I’ll never be a fan of movies that attempt to make a point about specific political issues. But if people keep making films like Tel Aviv on Fire, I might eventually come around.