Wellness documentary connects Arabs and Israelis through cooking

The visual equivalent of comfort food, “Breaking Bread” aims to inspire us all. First, open our hearts and minds to peace and inclusiveness. And second, find the best restaurant in the Middle East within a reasonable distance and place an order as soon as possible after the movie is over.

Writer/director/producer Beth Elise Hawk approached her first documentary as an unabashed passion project. His enthusiasm and general sense of joy clearly shines through from start to finish.

While it doesn’t dig deep enough to get us past the elevator pitch, this pitch is quite enticing: what if the first Palestinian to win Israel’s “MasterChef” competition launched a food festival bringing together Arabs and Jews?

Best of all, Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel is also a hugely charismatic microbiologist who brings a combination of cheerful optimism and pragmatic intelligence to both the film and the enduring conflict she’s determined to resolve.

Or, at least, to improve. As she herself admits with a wry smile, Israel “is not Switzerland”. But she also observes that there are many Israelis, Arabs and Jews, who share her desire for connection. Hawk’s intention, which she fulfills wholeheartedly, is to prove Atamna-Ismaeel right.

The latter chose the city of Haifa for its festival because it falls in the middle in many ways. Physically, it is between the mountains and the sea, and (relatively) far from unstable borders. It is not a holy city, so there are no ingrained resentments over using the same sites. And it’s also theologically balanced, with a mayor who proudly notes that the city celebrates Christmas, Chanukah and Ramadan together.

Break the bread

Atamna-Ismaeel’s idea is to partner with teams of Arab and Jewish chefs to work on a unique dish that they will offer during the festival. So we meet Catholic-Jewish Ilan, delighted to learn from his partner Osama, a Muslim restaurateur who draws inspiration from his small port village. Shlomi’s restaurant honors his grandfather’s Eastern European recipes, but for the festival he discovers Ali’s ancient Syrian cuisine, which dates back centuries. And so on, as Arabs and Jews work together to discover to their surprise that they individually love and respect each other. To reference the Anthony Bourdain quote used to open the film, “Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it is a start.”

Hawk occasionally and timidly nods to the conflict, such as when Atamna-Ismaeel asserts that what Jews call “Israeli salad” is of Arab origin, and that the name change is a means of appropriation. But the film always returns to Ilan’s point of view on the food he prepares with Osama: “It’s not an Arab dish or a Jewish dish. It’s our dish.

Break the bread

These absolutely gorgeous dishes are, in fact, the real highlights of the film (although we don’t need so many slow-motion hummus shots, even though they come with a side of the beautiful score of Omar El-Deeb). Cinematographer Ofer Ben Yehuda captures each dish with such rapture that it’s no surprise to learn he specializes in food imagery. And it’s also nice to get out of the kitchens, to see where certain chefs come from: to visit their cities, hear their stories and meet their families.

It would have been useful to see additional teams – surely there are a few other women? — and to learn more about the current festival. Indeed, between Dr. Atamna-Ismaeel, the chef pairings, and the festival itself, one could easily imagine the film being expanded into a series. Hawk, who worked as a producer and industry executive for many years, gives the event such a buildup that it’s a little disappointing when the movie wraps before we can attend at length. But, of course, there are worse complaints than wishing you could go back for a few seconds.

“Breaking Bread” opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 4.