Salt of This Sea is an enraged tourist’s consideration on the Israeli-Palestinian ethnic conflict, heavy in the mouth but not without its flashes of evocative visual beauty and insight. Possibly a stand-in for writer-director Annemarie Jacir, Suheir Hammad stars as Soraya, a Brooklyn-born woman of Palestinian descent who travels to Israel in order to connect with her roots, and from checkpoints to restaurants to financial and government institutions, Jacir structures nearly every scene in the film as a condemnation of Israeli hegemony. Tactless and belligerent as Israeli’s cavalierly supremacist attitude toward Palestinians in the Middle East may be, so too is Jacir’s self-righteousness.
But Salt of This Sea deepens after Soraya and her new boyfriend, Emad (Saleh Bakri), rob a bank of the money they froze and seized from her deceased grandfather more than 60 years ago, taking to the sea and traveling to Soraya’s ancestral home in Jaffa. Every emotion, every political point of view, is breathlessly and shrilly over-articulated, but a stretch of film that has Soraya and Emad making their way through Palestine, bewitched by its walls, its ancient, almost-Edenic splendor, is an arresting articulation of the couple’s feelings of displacement and hunger for transcendence. Coupled with a later scene that makes sense of the woman’s shrillness as a distinctly American mode of resistance to the horror that Emad has become tragically resigned to, it’s clear that subtlety suits Jacid.
But just as Salt of This Sea finds its graceful footing, it succumbs again to heavy-handedness: Soraya and Amad, compatible except for how they cope with the humiliation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, separate off-screen, and as Soraya is hurtled back toward America, she bluntly declares that she was born in Palestine to Israeli officers at a checkpoint. This bookend to the film’s opening scene is so on the nose you can practically see Hammad cringing from the weight of its bluntness, and it leaves one with a sour taste in the mouth—hankering for Jacir’s practically subliminal use of symbols (walls, oranges, and the sea) to convey her character’s feelings.