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Cross-cultural documentary looks at comfort food in the Middle East

THE WASHINGTON POST – The cross-cultural culinary documentary Breaking Bread delivers comfort food in every sense of the expression, from the mouthwatering Middle Eastern delicacies on view to the soul-nourishing displays of peacemaking compassion.

Director Beth Elise Hawk captures the 2017 and 2018 editions of the A-Sham Festival, in which Arab chefs collaborate on dishes at restaurants in the port city of Haifa. The brainchild of Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Muslim Arab to win on the TV show MasterChef, the festival was founded in 2015 on the notion that food is a universal gateway to inclusion and understanding. Hopeful to a fault, the film posits as much by quoting Anthony Bourdain in its opening text: “Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.”

Atamna-Ismaeel, a gifted chef with an open heart and probing mind, makes for a magnetic presence. Early on, she eloquently frames an eye-catching plate of manti (Turkish dumplings) as an allegory for the virtues of diversity. “Even if you look at food, when it’s one colour, it does not look good. But when it’s colourful, it pops out,” she said. “The same with people: When it’s variety, it’s just better.” Later, she muses on a touchy debate about cultural appropriation – whether a common regional dish should be known as Arab salad or something else – with beleaguered bemusement. “It’s funny, sad and complicated.”

But Breaking Bread mostly focusses on three pairings of Arab chefs. We start with the tattooed, Marlboro-loving Shlomi, whose Eastern European hole-in-the-wall carries on his grandfather’s meat-smoking traditions. His stylish counterpart Ali runs an upscale Syrian restaurant near the Lebanon border. Their bond, built on mutual admiration and unabashed curiosity, is deeply endearing.

The film also introduces the mild-mannered Osama and his amusingly brash cooking partner Ilan as well as street chef Salah and the world-weary Tomer, a restaurateur with Moroccan roots.

Tomer Abergel and Salah Cordi in Breaking Bread. PHOTO: COHEN MEDIA GROUP

The city of Haifa, where Christmas and Ramadhan are proudly celebrated side-by-side, comes alive as a vividly realised character in its own right. Regrettably, Hawk is less interested in channelling the energy of the A-Sham Festival itself, which is the subject of much prelude and little payoff. Edited down to a tidy running time, Breaking Bread would have benefited from leaving more meat on the bone.

But if there’s a defining drawback, it’s the documentary’s overly optimistic worldview: The subjects are so like-minded and admirably empathetic that Breaking Bread lacks the ingredients to foster a substantial sociopolitical discourse. The idea that the world’s problems would melt away if we could just take a seat and share a meal is tantalising but sadly trite.

Breaking Bread fares better with its lush Chef’s Table-esque presentations of such dishes as taashimi (Levantine fish), mussakhan (Palestinian chicken) and qatayef (an Arab pastry).

Omar El-Deeb’s evocative score and Ofer Ben Yehuda’s precise cinematography lend grandeur to each plating. If the slow-motion shots of a mortar and pestle grinding hummus into existence don’t stir up a craving for your local Mediterranean joint, nothing will.

By lovingly examining these dishes’ cultural underpinnings, Hawk serves up an insightful introduction to a food scene at the cross-section of political strife and culinary excellence – not a full meal, exactly, but an enticing appetiser.


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