In the early-70’s, I spent over three months on a kibbutz in the Negev. It was an amazing experience in many ways, but the food was not among the highlights. Breakfasts consisted of “Israeli salad,” yogurts, bread, tea, and something we called, “chocy sauce,” a pre-curser to Nutella. Dinners were a monotonous and not very adventurous boiled chicken.
In the Kitchen
So when I heard that there was a new film about Israeli food, I was intrigued. What could a 94-minute documentary possibly have to say about a cuisine of almost no note? To my surprise, the answer is “a lot.” In the skilled hands of director Roger Sherman and the warm embrace of chef and James Beard Award-Winner Michael Solomonov, also the on-camera host, the film opened up a whole new culinary world to me. And it went well beyond just humus and falafel.
In the Tomato Field
Traveling up and down this tiny [the size of New Jersey] but incredibly diverse country, viewers are introduced to Israel’s history, culture, and religions. Michael meets chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, winemakers, and journalists and delves deep into the origins of the foods they grow and cook, their families, and the immigrant experience. And what an experience it is. This “new” cuisine draws from thousands of years of history and over 150 different countries and cultures including Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Poland, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine. All of them celebrate the bounty and abundance of the local products around them. As one chef says, “It’s the flavor of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.”
With the Cheesemaker
The film is also a heartfelt reminder of Solomonov’s own heritage. He was born in Israel but grew up in Pittsburgh eating his Romanian grandmother’s cheese and potato “borekas,” a dish he recreates on camera. During the production, he also visits the place where his brother was killed during the Yom Kippur fighting in 2003. That history led Michael to re-examine his own Israeli/Sephardic roots; and ultimately to open his restaurant, Zahav, which means “gold” in Hebrew.
Fishing in the Galilee
From a filmmaking standpoint, this doc is a lovely little gem. The pacing and editing is spot on; the chefs, farmers, and restaurateurs are passionate and articulate; and the scenes of the landscapes are stunning. Kudos also to the light, atmospheric touch of the music created by Amit Gur and Moshe Da’aboul.
So what is Israeli Cuisine? Like any good recipe or great dish, it is a subtle and ever-changing mosaic of rich and colorful flavors; full of history and personal stories; and all of it touched with love.
Top: Michael with spices
All photo credits: Florentine Films
Oliver Stone’s films are not just entertainment; they are political statements. His new film, Snowden, focuses on the former CIA employee and government contractor who leaked information about widespread global surveillance by the U.S. government. The film is a sympathetic portrait of a whistleblower. And while many believe that Edward Snowden should face prosecution, others have lauded his actions. In June, 2015, President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, which sets some limits on what telecommunication data intelligence agencies may collect on U.S. citizens, a law that might not have happened, some say, without Snowden’s disclosures.
Snowden, viewed in the closing moments of the movie, seems to be taking advantage of any positive feelings that may result from Stone’s film. As Barack Obama heads into the final months of his administration, a time when many presidents issue pardons, Snowden is asking for one. In statements made to The Guardian, the British newspaper that first broke the story, Snowden called what he did “vital,” and “moral.” Snowden, who first fled to Hong Kong, has been living in Moscow. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that Snowden would face charges if he returned, former Attorney General Eric Holder in May said that Snowden had performed a “public service” by sparking a debate about surveillance. Stone’s film seems perfectly timed to continue that conversation.
While Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting since he was a child and has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, he will be a new discovery to many theater goers who will turn out to see him as Snowden. That low profile allows him to disappear into the role. He bears a physical resemblance to the title character, but it’s his performance that serves as the core of the film. He allows us to see his transformation, from an ardent patriot who believes the U.S. is the greatest country in the world (he’s asked that question in numerous polygraph tests along the way), to a disillusioned patriot who believes that post-9/11 the country has gone too far, sweeping up “metadata” on its citizens. At one point, he resigns from the CIA, so concerned about what he sees happening. But before too long, he’s back in and what he learns the second time around leads him to take action.
Snowden was a high school drop out who never graduated from college. (He earned a GED and took classes at a community college.) After 9/11, he enlisted in the Army, hoping to become Special Forces. A broken leg revealed more serious health problems and he was discharged. Looking for another way to serve his country, he applied to the CIA. When agency heavyweight Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) asks Snowden why he wants to join the CIA, he responds that it would be cool to have such a high security clearance. O’Brian is nonplussed by the answer, but he recognizes Snowden’s talents and hires him. The two become close but their relationship will be tested again and again.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley
Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s long-suffering girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Although they meet on a site called Geek-Mate, Lindsay is a photographer, not a techie. She’s also liberal, while Snowden still defends the Bush Administration. His security clearance prevents him from sharing anything about his work with Lindsay. As he becomes aware of just how far surveillance has gone, his moves to protect their privacy – covering up the camera on her computer with tape, claiming that their home is being bugged – come across to her as extreme paranoia. Yet she remains loyal and follows him to Tokyo and Hawaii. (In the closing credits we learn that Lindsay has moved to Moscow to be with Snowden.)
Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto
The film toggles back and forth between Poitras’ interview with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, and scenes from Snowden’s past while he was climbing the intelligence ladder. Melissa Leo plays Laura Poitras, who directed and produced Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about Snowden and Zachary Quinto plays Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who interviewed Snowden with Poitras’ camera running. There’s a claustrophobic feel to those hotel scenes, the tension building as the authorities threaten to close in. Once the Guardian story appears (according to the film, the outcome was never assured with Greenwald pushing his London editor, Janine Gibson played by Joely Richardson, to get it done) the hotel is overrun with journalists. Snowden manages to escape, hiding out for days in rundown sections of the city, eventually making it to Moscow.
Stone hasn’t had a high profile film in years. Snowden should put him back on the map.
Snowden opens nationwide September 16, 2016.
Photos Courtesy of Open Road Pictures