A nice young French-Israeli girl who wonders why anyone would bomb a Jerusalem café throws a bottle into the Gaza Sea with a message asking for an explanation. A nice young Palestinian boy who wonders why anyone would fire rockets into his neighbourhood finds the bottle and tries to answer her questions.
Boy never does meet girl – except by e-mail – but the intensely well-meaning A Bottle in the Gaza Sea is not short on romantic sentiment. The film, an international co-production with Canadian participation that was shot in French, Hebrew and Arabic, is based on the French book by Valérie Zenatti. It’s a novel for young adults and its adaptation for the screen by Zenatti and director Thierry Binisti produces something as youthfully naive as “Miss Peace” herself, as her Palestinian correspondent dubs her.
Tal (Agathe Bonitzer) is 17, the child of recent French immigrants to Israel, liberal Zionists whose determined enthusiasm for their new homeland is particularly well-observed by Jean-Philippe Écoffey and Smadi Wolfman. Her older brother is doing his military service – it is he who goes to the coast and throws her bottle towards the Gaza beach – and provides us with a small window into Israeli insecurity.
Down in Gaza, the sensitive if aimless young Naim (Mahmoud Shalabi) is the son of a widowed mother (the lovely Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass) who wishes he would aspire to something more than delivering T-shirts from his uncle’s factory. He is the one member of a gang of friends who takes the message in the bottle seriously and tries the e-mail address, first in English but soon, when he discovers his new pen pal’s roots, in rudimentary French. Their mutual suspicion soon grows into friendship – the young actors manage the subtle but impressive feat of suggesting an emotional connection while never sharing a scene – while he hurries off to the French community centre for more language lessons and a secure Internet connection.
Binisti is scrupulously even-handed and apolitical as he includes an Israeli attack that leaves Naim’s extended family cowering in the apartment and his mother tending to the wounded at the hospital, but also, in the film’s most shocking moment, shows Hamas soldiers threatening Naim with torture because they suspect he is communicating with an Israeli. Most of all he documents intransigence and prejudice rather than actual violence, showing how both sides are ruled by the absolute conviction the other is war-mongering and barbaric.
In the movies, that is nothing that can’t be conquered by the Tals and Naims of the world, and if the initial premise of this film is both obvious and improbable, the final tense moments as Naim finally escapes the prison that is the Gaza Strip, are genuinely gripping.
That’s the movies. In real life, wars may sometimes end because reasonable people have grown sick and tired of their idiocy but this particular conflict has proven obdurate. The initially cynical Naim suggests Tal’s project is insignificant, nothing but a bottle of hope bobbing about in a sea of enmity – and so too this film.
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea
- Written by Thierry Binisti and Valérie Zenatti
- Directed by Thierry Binisti
- Starring Agathe Bonitzer and Mahmoud Shalabi
- Classification: 14A
- 2 stars