Equal parts coming-of-age drama and political critique, the film takes up Tal’s statement regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, teases it out and then ultimately rejects it as another naïve platitude about the ongoing Mideast struggle.
As recent events in Israel indicate, moral equivalence does not apply. Though Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev recently said Israel’s response to Hamas strikes is “both measured and proportionate,” the destruction unleashed on civilians in Gaza over the last few weeks has been grossly disproportionate. According to several reports, Palestinian health officials estimate a death toll that’s reached over 1,000 and counting, while the United Nations has stated that three-fourths of those killed have been civilians. By contrast, Hamas’ recent indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel have killed three civilians, according to reports.
Though set in Jerusalem in September, 2007, during another escalation of tensions in the region, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea reflects the stark differences that exist for those living in the dilapidated coastal streets of Gaza—a strip of land on the coast, southeast of Jerusalem—and those urbanites living under Israeli’s Iron Dome defense shield.
When we first meet seventeen-year-old Tal, she is afraid to take a public bus for fear of suicide bombings; she worries about the fate of her brother, an Israeli military conscript; and in an attempt to understand why someone would blow one’s self up, she writes a letter to her unknown Palestinian neighbors, sticks it in a bottle, and asks her brother to throw it out to sea.
A few weeks later, a group of Palestinian young men retrieve the bottle; one of them, an aspiring English and French speaker named Naim Al Fardjouki, subsequently begins an email correspondence with his oppressor. What follows is a tentative and fraught penpal relationship, as Israeli girl and Palestinian boy play a delicate dance of accusations, counter-attacks, flirtations and détentes. Not exactly a You’ve Got Mail love story, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea becomes a tale about “the Other,” and our attempts to understand them.
Like Tal herself, the film gains an increasing awareness of the Palestinian experience. It accomplishes this with a series of contrasting scenes that serve as a revealing counterpoint between Israeli and Palestinian life: Tal sleeps in her bourgeois upper-middle class bedroom; Naim shares a bed in a run-down apartment with displaced family members. Tal enjoys joyous family dinners; Naim lives with his widowed mother (played by the great Hiam Abbas, looking as stern and somber as ever—the equivalent of Italian Neorealism’s Anna Magnani). Tal is afraid her brother has been killed in combat; Naim nearly gets blown to bits by a rocket attack, and must heave a dead body off his chest after the blast. Tal goes out dancing; Naim goes to visit the cemetery where his father was buried. “We don’t go clubbing in Gaza,” he writes to her dryly. She signs her emails, “Miss Peace.” If only it was that easy.
If the film appears ambiguous about its intentions, appearing, at first, nearly as naïve as Tal herself, such glaring juxtapositions indicate Bottle in the Gaza has more on its mind. Indeed, when Naim gets the chance to escape Gaza for a better life in France, the sequence in which he must traverse various checkpoints, hallways, barred gates, and security doorways is a tense and unnerving portrait of the real sense of entrapment that exists for Palestinians. By contrast, Tal jumps in her girlfriend’s car and zips through the desert, unheeded, to try to catch up with Naim. Do Israeli girl and Palestinian boy finally meet-cute at the Erez Crossing area in a climactic romantic finale?
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea may have the trappings of such genre formulations, but when buses are blowing up and rockets are falling from the sky, such superficial conventions are transcended. Rather, the movie doesn’t arrive at some clichéd union, but merely a moment of rapprochement. And perhaps, with respect to this intractable and unceasing conflict, that’s the most we can ask for.