What a film can teach us about war with Iran

15th July 2019

In 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran Deal, was signed. That same year, the Israeli-Iranian film, Atomic Falafel, directed by Dror Shaul was released. The JCPOA was signed by Iran and the P5 + 1 (China, Russia, US, UK, France + European Union), and stipulated that Iran would limit its nuclear research to civilian use and play within the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The deal sparked hope for a new era of relations between Iran and the international community.

Four years on, the US has pulled out of the JCPOA, while the other signatories scramble to salvage the deal. The US and Iran have come to the brink of war. US President Donald Trump apparently called an attack off once fighter jets was already in the air. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are beating their battle drums. Meanwhile, Iran has expanded its influence across the Middle East and is flexing its muscles in the Gulf of Oman. Recently it announced that it has started enriching uranium again.

Atomic Falafel’s message is important now more than ever. The satire takes place in the run up to mutual surprise nuclear attacks by Iran and Israel. The hawkish army commanders are foiled by three teenagers from the Israeli and Iranian towns where the nuclear reactors are held, who happen to have sparked a friendship online.

Shaul originally aimed to make the film the first to be shot between Israel and Iran, but because of financial difficulties on the Iranian side, Shaul had to make do with Iranian actors in Germany.

More than Shaul’s uncanny commentaries on Israeli society, the film sends out an unequivocally pacifist message. Rather than the usual patriotic depictions of the military, the audience sees them as half crazed, trigger happy schemers, willing to go to any length to bomb their enemies.

The film opens in the Israeli war room where generals propose their defence plans to the Defence Minister. All their plans are ludicrous – driving tanks into Iran –  though by far the most dangerous, as the general pulls out bigger and bigger models of bombers and missiles, is the huge nuclear bomb, which he plonks directly on the city of Natanz, where Iran’s nuclear reactor is held.

The film continues as a wild goose chase as the inept generals attempt to kick a German IAEA inspector with an extreme allergy to enriched uranium, Oli Hahn, who has fallen in love with the beautiful local falafel seller, Mimi Azrian, out of the country. They also have to chase her teenage daughter, Nofar, and her computer genius boyfriend, Meron, who have acquired the IDF’s nuclear codes.

The film concludes with Nofar, Meron and their Iranian friend, Sharare, blocking the nuclear launch just 15 minutes before it was due to start. Oli, who was kicked out of Israel and joined the IAEA mission in Iran, joins Sharare, her father, who holds Iran’s nuclear codes, and the Revolutionary Guards who stormed their house on a video call to Israel. Meron, Nofar, Mimi, as well as the Minister for Defence and the generals who have just stormed their house are on the other end of the video. Meron broadcasts the video chat to all the main news channels across the world. The conversation starts with the usual threats of death and destruction, both sides armed with the “red button” which would launch the attack. The situation is diffused by the Israeli Defence Minister, who happens to be of Iranian origin. He converses with the Head of the Revolutionary Guards in Farsi, and agrees to a year long ceasefire. The last scene shows both sides incredulous to what has just happened, both coming to the conclusion that the other is tricking them. Both attempt to launch the attack, only to find that Meron’s latest software, Kurdish Worm 6 has destroyed the code.

The power of the film lies in Shaul’s depiction of “the other”. What Shaul does best is to show the humanity on both the Iranian and the Israeli side. The Nofar and Sharare’s initial messaging on “Lookbook” (Facebook) is filled with stereotypical generalisations of Iranians and Israelis. Messages shot back and forth between the two girls such as “all Arabs want to destroy Israel” (Iranians are not Arabs) and “Israel wants to kill all Iranians” which are often used by politicians to stir up fear, are portrayed as no more than teenage bickering.

From the worries of the Iranian father who despairs at his daughter’s rebelliousness while he is under surveillance, to the Israeli teenagers’ obsession with losing their virginity, to Mimi’s struggles to be recognised as an army widow, the film introduces those who advocate attacks on Iran or Israel to the people who will most suffer from them: mothers, fathers and children. It serves as a cautionary tale against the perils of brinkmanship for belligerent politicians.

In a world where no line is drawn between the State and the People, where Israel and Israelis or Iran and Iranians are synonymous, Shaul gives a face and a voice to those who have fallen on the sharp end of political rhetoric: ordinary Israelis and Iranians. He gives the voice back to the people who have been stereotyped and dehumanised to serve political means.

He further reinforces this message of the difference between people and the state through the conflict between the army and Mimi, Oli, Nofar, Meron and Sharare, who all break a multitude of laws, including stealing military property, entering enclosed military areas and divulging state secrets. Mimi and Nofar’s outspoken criticism of the army, and Mimi’s homage to Israeli nuclear whistleblower, Mordechai Vanunu, reminds the audience that in a political climate that attempts to silence alternative opinions (listen here to Nigel Farage say that all civil servants that don’t agree with Brexit should be fired), dissent is all the more important.  

In 2019, a year that has been even more vicious and unforgiving than 2018, and extremely depressing for all watching and analysing global politics, Atomic Falafel is a film well worth revisiting. It reminds us that there is a huge difference between the rhetoric of politicians and the will of the people to simply live a decent life, as well as a reminder that at the end of the day, it is the voice of the people that ultimately have the power to decide our future.