Film Review: A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

This French/Israeli/Canadian co-production about an e-mail friendship between a young Israeli and Palestinian is yet another impressive dramatic take on the endless Middle East impasse and attendant violence. It has traveled the fest circuit and garner

So many features of late, documentaries especially, have been dealing with the intractable Middle East situation. And narrative fiction too, like Lemon Tree and the current The Other Son, among others, tackles the subject. Like its worthy predecessors, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea delivers involving, well-acted drama about the conflict. Less welcome is the reminder that some obvious steps toward resolution are not being taken, by Israel most notably, to achieve a kind of peace and reasonable settlement for both sides. In the meantime, death, violence and suffering flow.

In Bottle, a violent bombing in Jerusalem in 2007 motivates Tal (Agathe Bonitzer), a 17-year-old French-born teen, to compose a letter, which includes her e-mail address, pleading for peace and slip it into a bottle that her soldier brother Eytan (Abraham Belaga) throws into the nearby Gaza Sea. The letter, which quite directly asks why such bombings happen, is retrieved by a gaggle of young Palestinian males, among whom is 19-year-old Naim (Mahmoud Shalaby). The first message back is inauspicious: One of Naim’s wiseguy friends suggests instructions on how someone can strap on a bomb.

But the serious Naim, with designs on leaving Gaza and studying in Paris, answers responsibly. Using the handle “Gazaman,” he begins what will become an online friendship with Tal.

She keeps their correspondence secret because her loving Israeli family, relocated from France, is loyal to their adopted country and their Judaism and would clearly not approve. A joyful Succoth celebration puts across the point of these decent people unfairly caught up in so problematic a situation.

Tal and Naim reveal pain in their growing correspondence. Tal writes that her brother, although a soldier, is “a good guy.” Naim states his case: “Your people have a state; we don’t” and laments about who’s to blame. As warmth between the two grows, we also learn that they share important values. Naim’s nurse mother Intessar (the wonderful Hiam Abbass of Lemon Tree and Munich), for instance, urges her son to return to college. After reading a notice about French government scholarships, he studies French with supportive teacher Thomas (François Loriquet) at Gaza’s French Cultural Center. As Tal and Naim share more in their e-mail exchanges, it becomes clear they have much in common. But violent Arab attacks, bombings and near-impossible border crossings serve as a cruel counterpoint to this unusual communication, which is soon discovered by Tal’s family. Unexpected interruptions ensue.

The performances here are wonderful and the local color and beautiful cinematography add much to the film’s authenticity and dramatic turns. In addition to its Palestinian-Israeli theme, Bottle is timely, as Israel, after last November’s violent Israeli and Gaza eruption, just eased passage of trucks across the tight border.

But where is the solution? None of these films, however concerned and well-intentioned, has had the courage to suggest giving (back) the Palestinians their state so that they can live in dignity instead of under the terrible conditions forever depicted in the media.