Though never made explicit in the film’s credits, it should come as no surprise that Thierry Binisti’s A Bottle in the Gaza Sea is based on a young-adult novel. This drama about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict focuses on email pen pals from opposing sides of the divide, and the resulting epistolary nature of the work seems far more suited for the page than for the screen. Though the film’s heart is in the right place, its political analysis is so perfunctory that it’s almost a relief to realize that its initial target was adolescents.
The narrative concerns 17-year-old Tal (Agathe Bonitzer), an ethnically French teenager living in Jerusalem. Following a bombing near her home, Tal writes an open letter asking Palestinians about the rationale of suicide bombers, stuffs it in a bottle, and has her soldier brother pitch it into the Mediterranean. It’s discovered by a rowdy group of twentysomething Palestinians in Gaza who laugh at Tal’s naïveté—but one of them, Naïm (Mahmoud Shalaby), nonetheless writes back to the provided email address. The friendship of the unlikely cross-border pen pals warms and cools as events unfold around the 2007 ceasefire.
Tracking a child’s understanding of political conflict on film has often given directors the opportunity to look at human truths through a unique and malleable perspective, using youthful empathy to color an understanding of a degraded situation. However, the film’s emails-in-voiceover conceit is far too clunky to mine emotional truths from the characters; instead we get reactive statements written by teenagers who trade the blame and shame whenever a new rocket launches or bomb falls. The result is sanctimonious and ultimately pointless, as a “Why can’t we all just get along?” attitude is absurdly trite given the gravity of the political situation.
The film obviously can’t resolve the conflict between Palestine and Israel, but the resolution to the story’s arc feels nonetheless forced and misplaced. After Naïm discovers that Tal is French by birth, he starts taking French classes, becoming obsessive about learning the language and using his communiqués with Tal as a way to further his studies. Eventually he’s given the opportunity to leave Gaza by winning an exit visa and a scholarship to study in France. But the film posits his interest in France as pure escapism, with no true motivation shown, and no shared interest in French culture discussed between him and Tal (one wonders if Naïm is aware that recent French history has been less than kind to Arabs and Jews alike). The only tangible benefit to his Francophilia is that being in class secludes Naïm from the daily trials of life in Gaza and gives him a purpose in a society that’s full of dead ends. Suggesting, as the film does, that the best thing a young Palestinian man can hope for is to fly away from Gaza seems questionable at best.
But putting too much stock in the film’s political motives seems fruitless, since the film effectively functions on the level of its adolescent-oriented source text, being a primer only to the widely relatable emotional issues of the conflict and none of the harder political ones. This might be sufficient if the film was actually oriented for an audience of young adults, but, alas, there’s no identification fostered with its youthful protagonists (appearing mostly angst-ridden for the majority of the film’s running time), nor any sense of energy or pop to engage young viewers. Instead, the film mostly follows a blueprint for “serious adult drama”: pretty and studied Scope cinematography, heavy-handed orchestral score, and an important social-issue plot. But since the form and the function never coalesce, the purpose of the film is lost at sea.