It's rare to find a documentary set in the Middle East that isn't mired in politics and discord. Rarer still is one bathed in the kind of optimism and goodwill found in Beth Elise Hawk's new film, Breaking Bread. An inside look at a three-day food festival in Haifa, Israel, pairing Israeli and Muslim Arab chefs, Breaking Bread pursues peace through the power of creating top-notch cuisine.
The annual A-Sham Festival was founded by Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Muslim Israeli to win Israel's cooking competition, Masterchef. Atamna-Ismaeel herself could be the subject of a documentary. Bullied in school for not knowing Hebrew well enough, she learned to brush off racist taunts and excel, eventually winning over her classmates and even inviting some to her house in an Arab village. It's clear that from an early age her calling was to break down barriers, and the festival serves as a grown-up attempt to invite people to her village, to experience her culture as their own.
Gradually we're introduced to a few of the chefs who will be working together. Their task is to take Arab dishes unknown to the general public and make entrees out of them.
There's Shlomi, a family-man and third-generation restaurant owner who is matched with Ali, a restless young chef hoping to make his village on the border of Lebanon a culinary destination. We meet Osama, who at 22 opened his own restaurant in Tel Aviv, and his partner for the festival, Ilan, a bearded Epicurean who just wants to "make art and enjoy life." And finally, there's Salah, the chef from the streets who grew up tasting every cuisine imaginable, along with Tomer, the cynical Moroccan who claims his people "solve problems and make problems around the [dinner table]."
As the festival approaches, the chefs meet one another. The Muslim Arab chefs are welcomed into the kitchens of the Israeli chefs, inspecting and appraising each other's work. The chefs talk and eat, smoke cigarettes together, and share beer. The rapport among the chefs is congenial, even flattering. There's no division, no difficult questions. It's all breezy mutual respect.
Breaking Bread is the story of a festival designed to lift up and revel in shared enjoyment, putting aside what divides people.
The filming takes place mostly in Haifa, a city that one interviewee calls the only place with a legacy of peace "for Arabs and Jews for over one hundred years." But we're also treated to images from the villages and cities that the chefs are traveling from. This gives the entire documentary a travelogue feeling, similar to any episode of Anthony Bourdain's series on Travel Channel and CNN. In fact, the film opens with a quote from Bourdain, demonstrating his continuing influence on the genre.
Not to worry, there's also plenty of close-ups of mouth-watering food, layers of rice and meat, soup, and slow-motion dollops of hummus. It makes you want to run out to your nearest Middle Eastern restaurant.
But as the film progresses with interviews of the participating chefs and restaurant owners, more complex thoughts about the region do emerge. In particular: what actually constitutes Israeli food? The name of the festival itself, A-Sham, means Levant in Arabic, an area including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. A running motif of the film is of a pita bread divided into these various countries. One participant asks if all Israeli cuisine is Arab. Another just calls it Levant food, neither Israeli nor Arab.
Though these questions may only scratch the surface of the political and cultural divides in Israel, what does emerge is a complicated patchwork of identities, especially when it comes to food. What Breaking Bread does so well is insist that while identities and politics may be complicated, food remains simple. We can all come together over a pot of kishek (yogurt soup) and a bowl of hummus.
Opens February 4 in New York (Quad Cinemas and JCC Manhattan) and Los Angeles (Landmark Nuart). Running time: 1 hr 25 min.