Dr Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Muslim Arab to win Israel's version of MasterChef, is on a quest for peace using the weapons she knows best: food. "Hummus has no borders" is her mantra, the A-Sham Food Festival in Haifa is her playground, and we as her audience are her targets. Beth Elise Hawk's culinary documentary, 'Breaking Bread', follows Nof on her journey in bringing Arab and Jewish chefs together to celebrate the one thing that everyone from any background loves - food.
'Breaking Bread' opens with a quote from the late and greatly admired chef Anthony Bourdain: "Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it's a start." Well, if what Hawk has managed to capture in her short time in Haifa is anything to go by, then we might be well on the way. While Nof is the central figure to everything that we see, it's the collaborations of the Arab and Israeli chefs that gives this film its charm and vibrancy.
Nof grew up in an Arab town but attended a Jewish school as a child. As she so warmly puts it, this dichotomy of the two worlds she is part of has given her an increased spectrum of understanding, and more importantly, the foresight to break through her given paradigms. In Nof's world, "there is no room for politics in the kitchen," and if food can be the ignition to social change, then that is what she will chase. This is the goal of her brainchild - the A-Sham food festival - which brings Arab and Jewish chefs from all over Israel together to create fusion, colour and harmony.
These talented chefs all come together for a shared utopian vision of the future, and it's truly heartwarming to see. One Palestinian chef from Akko brings a dish from his Syrian background, shows it to the Jewish chef who lives in Haifa but has ancestry from Morocco, and he smiles as he tastes the dish, recalling that it taste like food his grandmother would make. A small moment insignificant to some, but it seems to harness the possibilities food can have, and it's difficult not to smile at the connections.
The food that is on display looks stunning, so I don't recommend going into this film hungry. Hawk captures some really intricate moments between chef and food, letting the artists paint on the canvas with the same freedom and expression their families have for generations. Coming from someone who doesn't even like hummus, the cuisine on screen in 'Breaking Bread' is mouthwatering.
Are they Arab recipes, Jewish recipes, Palestinian recipes, Israeli recipes, all of them, or none? It really doesn't matter, and while some try to label the dishes, it ends up causing more harm than good, with political sensitivities and complicated backgrounds fraught with danger. The key here is that it's not important, but inevitably, when dealing with a subject matter of this magnitude, politics will find its way to the table.
Hawk captures some really intricate moments between chef and food, letting the artists paint on the canvas with the freedom and expression their families have done with for generations
It would be naive and possibly cowardly for Hawk not to approach the subject of politics, but she does it in a way that is extremely balanced, and with a refreshingly positive outlook. Haifa as a city is truly a model of coexistence to the rest of Israel, and that comes through with the people that Hawk interviews and follows throughout the film. Nof is quick to point out that what everyone sees on the news is not the reality, representing maybe 10% of what the country really feels like. With her festival, she aims to showcase the other 90% who don't make the headlines, where there is so much hope for a brighter future. These chefs in particular represent that 90%, and the A-Sham festival proves a wonderful avenue for friendship and peace.
Whilst there is lots of cohesion in the kitchen, the same can't be said of the narrative flow. It often feels like, at times, Hawk was just happy to point and shoot at the chefs and see what happens, and although it works a lot of time to give that raw feel, it can also lack the polish to smooth out the rough edges. The interviews can sometimes feel disjointed and without much connection from one point to another. In saying that, it doesn't detract from the focus of the film, nor does it feel like it limits the subjects and what they are trying to say. Like a lot of the food itself, the messiness can be equally as tasty.
The characters we are introduced to are as vibrant as the food on screen, with focus on Shlomi and Ali a particular delight. They are emblematic of the small yet hugely significant steps the country must take for a brighter future. All the ingredients are there, all the tools are in place, and 'Breaking Bread' proves that with the right combinations and platforms, anything is achievable. If, as Mr Bourdain claims, food is a start to the answer of world peace, then Nof and her endeavours are making a good go of it.