Despite the fact that his childhood and teenage years were spent in Jerusalem, today director Eytan Fox is probably one of the most quintessentially Tel Avivian filmmakers. From his feature debut, The Song of the Siren (1994), through groundbreaking TV drama Florentine, early noughties hit The Bubble, and all the way to Sublet (2020), Fox has been composing these odes to Tel Aviv for being the liberal, secular, LGBTQ-friendly, vocal, young, and liberated stronghold that it is. The Song of the Siren, the film that bookends this early ‘90s wave of Tel Aviv-centric films, is an adaptation of author and screenwriter Irit Linur’s novel of the same title. It follows the story of Talilah Katz, an acid-tongued 32-year-old ad executive who is torn between her love for Noah – a square and sensible food engineer from the arse end of suburbia, and her ex, Opher – a yuppy fellow adman. Meanwhile, the First Gulf War rages in the background. The year is 1991.
Back then, in real time, it seemed as though every Israeli actress was after Talilah’s part. And indeed, the hunt for her portrayer was almost reminiscent of the search for Gone with the Wind protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara. Fox eventually went with Dalit Kahan who, at the time, was known from a series of TV adverts she had done. Linur, who had been keen on a different actor for the role, was none too thrilled with this casting choice and in fact, the creative differences between author and director had, at one point, escalated into a vocal row and a massive falling out. The part of food engineer, Noah, went to Boaz Gur-Lavi, whereas elusive ex, Opher’s portrayer ended up being none other than one Yair Lapid – long before he ended up taking office as Israeli Prime Minister.
One of the scenes that fully capture the vibe of these stylised, well put together times when yuppy values reigned supreme and with them, so did the advertising world, is the New Year’s Eve party at the start of the film. Members of the Rosenbaum Marco Ad Agency are all ringing in the new year, welcoming 1991 not long before war breaks out. “I can’t be arsed with ad execs’ parties,” Talilah declares, and yet makes an appearance at the party – where she runs into her ex who is flirting with an attractive young woman.
That said, these hedonistic, disconnected ‘bubble dwellers’ aren’t ignoring the permeating political tensions and the impending war, and as everyone is counting down the final seconds of the year, a portrait of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein appears on the sign that reads ‘1991’, as flames come bursting out of his mouth.
The First Gulf War was a major test for this new Tel Avivianness. As the first Scud missiles started raining down on the city, many of its residents fled with their gasmasks to their parents’ homes in the provinces and other distant sanctuaries. Fox, meanwhile, chose to portray those days of war and sheltering in chemical and bio-proof safe rooms [that every Tel Avivian had to make in their home – EE] in a lighthearted, trauma-free manner. “There are some people who, if you give them a serious take on the war, would be scared shitless,” Fox said not long before shooting began. “But with us, the war turns into something nice. You think back to it with a smile on your face. If one must revisit that experience, then my film is by far the nicest way of going about it. It’s lovely that this most glorious love story is set against the backdrop of the war, of all things.”