Glasses clink. Forks scrape against plates. Indistinguishable café chatter fills the black screen that opens “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea.” Then an explosion. And silence.
Seventeen year-old protagonist Tal Levine isn’t in the café—she’s lying on her bed around the corner—but the bombing shatters her serene Jerusalem reality. Longing to put a human face to the violence and news reports, Tal writes a letter asking for something she doesn’t quite understand herself, wondering, "I don't get how life can depend on going to for quick coffee or not." Placed in a bottle and thrown it into the sea near Gaza by her soldier brother, the message is tossed by indifferent waves.
Jaded Naïm and his friends find the bottle at the beach. They decipher the English letter and immediately discard the intent as ludicrous. Bored and careless, the boys bluster through their daily lives, only to have the relative tranquility punctured by an air strike. Naïm decides to write a snarky English reply to the Israeli’s letter, expecting no response.
The distance between Gaza City and Jerusalem is only 45 miles, but the gulf of understanding between Tal and Naïm is enormous. Still, the teens attempt to form a fragile relationship in director Thierry Binisti’s film, which opens the Toronto Jewish Film Festival tonight. Their dangerous communications, misunderstood by all around them, augment the piercings, kisses, parties and weddings that mark every teenager’s life.
When Naïm writes that he raises goats by day and makes bombs at night, Tal responds, "What a sense of humor. Are you sure you're not Jewish?" They fumble with humor, culture and politics, but, as Naïm writes, "Who are you and who am I, that's what matters."
It is a curious reincarnation of “You’ve Got Mail,” with Operation Cast Lead and suicide bombings in Jerusalem replacing a business conflict between city bookstores. But somehow, Agathe Bonitzer’s wooden Tal and Mahmud Shalaby’s tortured Naïm make the perfect Middle Eastern couple. The central conceit, so strained in Hollywood’s version, is utterly necessary in “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea.” As one of Tal’s friends incredulously comments, "It's totally wild, emails get through to Gaza?"
The dirt roads and clapboard houses of Gaza contrast with the buses and busy shops of Israel, but both sides live in fear of the next attack. Naïm is terrorized by Palestinian soldiers for “conspiring” with Israelis while Tal is yelled at by her parents for aiding the enemy. Though Naïm’s stakes are undoubtedly higher as he is isolated from his friends and family for pursuing fluency in French and applying for a scholarship that would take him to Paris, Tal’s disquiet carries across the screen.
Naïm and Tal’s exchanges are short, but powerful. English words like “friend” suddenly regain their meaning in this context. As Tal watches footage of bombs falling on Gaza City and Naïm crouches in the dark with his family listening to rockets whistle overhead, their friendship takes a dark turn.
But Naïm does win his scholarship, and travels through the empty checkpoint deliberately to meet his future. Though Tal rushes to the checkpoint to finally meet her pen pal face-to-face, the two are forced to pass by one another as Naïm is ordered to travel through Israel to Jordan without stopping.
The French film, based on a novel of the same name, concludes, “Everything is possible.” The soaring finish and overlapping voice over is a bit melodramatic and a lot naïve, but it is still heartwarming to see the next generation making an effort to break the conflict down to a human level. Naïm and Tal may not be able to meet in Palestine or Israel, but they will sit down for coffee in Paris. Unlikely and rare, “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” argues that friendship can overcome war, and charts one possible path towards peace.