Oren Rosenfeld seeks the humanity of hummus | The World Weekly
It’s hummus, everyone loves hummus!” says a smiling Jalil Dabit, one of the main characters in Israeli director Oren Rosenfeld’s new documentary, ‘Hummus! The Movie’. The film, which celebrated its European premiere at the Jewish Film Festival in Berlin this month, follows the lives of three Israeli hummus makers with their own restaurants, revealing their passion and secrets for this “magical” food.
I sat down with director Oren Rosenfeld in Berlin, two days after the European premiere of his film. What I wanted to know was: What inspired a news man like him who had covered numerous wars and the second intifada to make a movie about hummus?
He often drives through Abu Gosh, a village near Jerusalem well known for its great Arab food. “When you drive through this village, ideas pop up… and then the stars aligned and the idea of making this film came up in a conversation,” Mr. Rosenfeld tells me. This was three years ago. Then someone told him about a female hummus maker. “A woman that makes hummus? I had to see her, because I had never seen one before,” Mr. Rosenfeld says.
This is how another one of the lead characters came into play. Suheila al-Hindi in many ways is the heart of the movie. She is remarkable in numerous ways: A single Muslim woman in her 50s, has her own restaurant (notably the only one owned by a Muslim woman in the Arab market of Acre), employs 10 men, and won the Golden Pita award in Israel for best hummus, beating 10 male contenders in the running.
In the course of the film, which was shot over the last three years, the viewer also learns about Jalil Dabit, a Christian Arab from Ramle in central Israel, and Eliyahu Shmueli, a hippie-turned Orthodox Jew, whose dream it is to own a farm with his family in the Galilee mountains. On the surface of it, three characters that could hardly be more different, while at the same time making up the patchwork that is Israeli society.
The official trailer: ‘Hummus! The Movie’
How did you find all these great characters, I asked Mr. Rosenfeld. “I ate a lot of hummus. Every time somebody told me about a cool hummus place, me and Michal, the producer, went and checked it out and then decided whether to approach [the owners] or not… If there was no karma…”
“The nature of making the documentary was, you start it with an idea and you don’t know where it’s going to take you,” Mr. Rosenfeld says, recalling how he found Jalil after a random recommendation he received when filming somewhere else in the country. “I listened to people.”
And Jalil is not necessarily what one might expect from a Christian Arab who is the heir of a hummus restaurant. During the shooting of the movie he was running the restaurant named after his father, Samir. But it wasn’t enough for him to keep the popular restaurant going as it was. He was trying to put on live concerts with local bands - as it turned out, quite a challenge in out-of-the way Ramle - and was hatching plans to open up a restaurant right here in Berlin; a plan that succeeded, Mr. Rosenfeld tells me.
The movie is really about the characters and their paths and ambitions. “I didn’t want to make a movie about hummus and who makes the best hummus,” Mr. Rosenfeld tells me. “It wasn’t important for me and I was hoping that through my characters I was going to show more. More is their personal stories that just happened to come out after being with them all those years. I didn’t know what they were initially… That was the beauty of it, everything I did led to another, another character and another thing.”
Hummus… it’s not normal, it’s not something ordinary… it’s magic.” - Eliyahu Shmueli, Hummus restaurateur
As much as it is a culinary journey, the documentary also is a journey through various parts of Israel, but the Palestinian territories are notably absent. “I went all over Israel and the West Bank as well,” Mr. Rosenfeld says. “I was really, really hoping to find a Palestinian. For me, there’s no borders, that’s why I am called Holy Land Productions. The borders weren’t important, it was the characters. Things needed to be right.”
Throughout our conversation, eventually joined by producer Michal Lee Sapir, it became clear how politics and the conflict were part of their daily lives and jobs. “We didn’t go into politics, even though we live it, see it, report it. We wanted to get to as many people as possible and bringing in the politics would piss people off,” Ms. Sapir tells me. “It doesn’t matter what side you are on. We artists, journalists, we live in a bubble, everyone shares our opinions and we didn’t want to preach to the choir, we wanted to go beyond, show people a different way.”
Mr. Rosenfeld concurs. “We weren’t avoiding the white elephant in the room, but we decided to not tackle it head on but rather do it in the way that lets the viewer see it.”
The film keeps a feel-good vibe throughout its duration, while subtly hinting at some of the key challenges Israeli society is facing. And that subtlety might be its biggest strength.
Just don’t expect to get a confirmation on who actually invented hummus. That, it appears, will remain an eternal question.
Hummus! The Movie (with an extended version) will be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 21- August 7, 2016) and the UK Jewish Film Festival in November 2016.