Mike mentioned all the footage that didn’t make its way into the final cut. So even with the longer version, look for the DVD extras, I take it?
Oh, my God—that’s a really good question. We could have made a three or four hour film, but no one is going to watch a three or four hour film, as good as the material is. You have to do it for the audience. In the fall we will start the festival release. After the festival release, we’ll start community screenings. Once that is over, then it will go to PBS—probably in 2017.
How long did it take you to get to the main themes? There’s recognizing the other, the film as a beautiful dedication to Mike’s brother, and this whole mission of pushing grandmother-cooking based diplomacy.
Hahaha. That’s fabulous. Absolutely.
What was the evolution of getting to that beautiful balance?
Good films are one thing. I’ve been doing this a long, long time. I think I can always make a great film. Making a great film is what keeps me up at night. A film is really made in the editing room. It can be ruined or it can be made into something that’s wonderful. I had a fabulous editor named Pamela Scott Arnold and we worked very closely together. And I knew that I wanted Mike’s brother’s death to be part of the film. Right from the start, Mike agreed that, yes, it should be and we just happened to hit it at the tenth anniversary so there was going to be a commemoration. I didn’t know how I was going to handle that. At one point of the edit, it was all at the end of the film. Then I realized, no, this is why Mike is doing Israeli cuisine—because of David’s death. We have to somehow set it up that we know who this man is and why he’s doing what he’d doing. At the middle of the editing, we moved that to the beginning. The same thing happened with the Palestinian scene—it was at the very, very end. I knew I needed to have people talking about the conflict. You can’t get away from a conflict in Israel no matter what you’re talking about, including food. And that was lost at the end of the film. We moved it up to about thirty-three minutes in, so you really get—I hope—a sense of how complicated this place is. Finally, I knew also, every chef that I talked to said, you cannot be my enemy if you’re sitting at my table, and for three years, I knew that had to be in the film. What worried me was that I didn’t want to come off as naïve. I’m not gonna create peace in the Middle East by having chefs serving Muslims, Jews and both groups eating together. I had to make that a balance. It had to be a part of it, but it couldn’t be too much. It’s something I always worry about. And you never know until people start watching the film and they start responding. I hope that that was a successful way of doing it.
Knowing Mike’s story, I knew it has to be addressed—as with the conflict with the Palestinians, which is addressed quickly via the idea of cultural identity and the issue of culinary theft. I thought to ignore either one for too long would be a mistake, so it was nice that they came in early to set up the film, as the scope of the film was gradually built upon.
I really appreciate it. We give the audience a little bit here and then give them the big thing later—and that’s what filmmaking is all about. That kind of structure is what keeps you paying attention and keeps you in your seat, and hopefully riveted, so thank you.
Since there’s much uncovered here just by examining Israeli food, would you consider this as a nice intersection of all your work, which itself cuts across so many categories?
Actually no, because I feel that this is what I do. I don’t try to make every film different, but, as I said before, I let the subject tell me how the film should be made in a sense. So, my films are all different. I hope you don’t look at one of them and go, oh, that’s a Roger Sherman film. I imagine if you looked at five or six or ten films, you’d see similar styles, but I think the history is very important in this film even though I’ve done many historical films. I think the history is so important to understand where Israel is today and where it’s moving. Even though there’s not a lot of history [in this film], I felt I needed to put enough in it to give the viewer perspective, to open their eyes to this place that few of us know about—that, my God, this was a third world country. If you talked about cuisine, you’d get slapped thirty years ago. It would be, what are you talking about?! We’re trying to survive here! That’s ridiculous—fine dining! I just feel this is filmmaking and I just put in whatever is needed. The other part, this is the first time in many, many years that I didn’t use the same composer. I felt that I needed somebody who understood—like Mike does—the many different traditions: the different folk music, the different instruments that come out of these places. So finding Amit Gur, who happens to be the son of Janna Gur, was a very important thing.
I set out to make a portrait of the Israeli people, told through food. I hope by looking at these people who work within the food world in Israeli, you’ll get a better sense of who the people in Israel are. I always felt when I decided to make this film that our view of Israel is only what we see in the press and 99% of that is bad. 99% is about the government and policy, and 0% is about the people. I thought this is a way to show a people. Talk about a nexus—my films are all portraits. Even if you have 20 different scenes with different people, they’re all portraits of each of those individuals. Whether they’re a restaurateur or a home cook, I hope you understand who that person is, and by understanding who that person is, you’ll get a different sense of Israel.
In regard to how immigrants are presented in the film—as part of the fabric of the whole that is Israeli society—portrait sums it up because we’re led to look at people in their totality as we see them as being entirely similar to us. You go and have their grandmother’s cooking and you see how all division disappears.
Exactly, exactly. That’s what I’m hoping for.
In Search Of Israeli Cuisine
Opening Night of Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival
Monday, March 28
The Gershman Y
401 S Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19147