“Could a regional love of hummus be the recipe for peace in the Middle East?” That’s the question being posed by Trevor Graham, the Australian filmmaker behind the 2012 documentary, Make Hummus Not War, which screens as part of the Screen Cuisine portion of this year’s SBIFF. Over the course of the film’s hour-plus runtime, Graham and his camera crew traverse the Middle East in the hopes of uncovering the true lineage of the region’s most recognizable dip. In the process, they discover the people, places, and stories behind the food — and begin to digest the impact eating can have on a community. Below, we chat with Graham about food, politics, and the big hopes he has for his little film about chickpeas.
Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing as it pertained to food?
We were a typical Australian post World War II family. I am child of the Baby Boom. I grew up in the late 1950s, 1960s, and early ‘70s in a Melbourne suburb called Sunshine. As a kid I thought there were only three types of food: canned spaghetti, meat pies, and fries with ketchup and vanilla slices. Sunday lamb roast, cream sponge were staples too. We ate every kind of meat there was; corned, boiled, roasted, fried, grilled. The idea that you could even cook your own spaghetti, or that there were other forms of pasta never dawned on us in our suburban working class kitchen.
Were either of your parents big cooks? Did food play a pretty important role in family gatherings?
Christmas lunches were the biggest food event of the year when the extended family would gather for turkey and ham. My parents were never ones to explore beyond their Anglo heritage when it came to food. They were day-to-day cooks, particularly my mother, to simply feed the family. It was practical and needs based. There wasn’t the fascination with food and exploring culinary culture as there is today.
What sparked the interest in hummus as film subject?
I’m a Middle Eastern fanatic when it comes to food. Not a week goes by without consulting Claudia Roden’s Arabesque, or her book Middle Eastern Food. The pleasures of Janna Gurr’s The Book of New Israeli Food and Christiane Dabdoub Nasser’s Classic Palestinian Cooking have now been added to our kitchen, too. Tajines, hummus, and baba ganoush are staples at home in Bondi Beach. The flavor of these foods has been a part of my life since I was a teenager, and as one gets older reflection gathers momentum — about who you are and where you come from. That’s another reason why I made the film.
Was there a definitive a-ha moment that led you to picking up a camera?
The a-ha moment was when I discovered in 2009 that Lebanon was contemplating suing Israel in an international court because the Lebanese considered the Israelis to have stolen their food by marketing hummus internationally as an Israeli food product. In Lebanon this is no laughing matter. So here was yet another Middle East conflict, but this time in the kitchen.
What surprised you most over the course of filming and editing Make Hummus?
How passionately people on all sides of this culinary conflict passionately adore their hummus. How good the hummus was in many parts of Israel, because it’s made mostly by Palestinians. But the largest surprise was that everywhere you go in Lebanon people of all makes and classes love their hummus and it is excellent. One small humble cafe in Beirut attracted politicians, taxi drivers, and opera singers, rich and poor, simply because the hummus was so good. Hummus crosses the social divide.
What has the response been like, both from audiences and the folks who were involved?
The film has seen sell-out audiences just about everywhere, and there’s been a hugely supportive response from European film festivals. Audiences find the film funny, engaging, and it makes them hungry. If you can do that and deal with some substantive international issues then I think you have a winner. Interestingly, the film as screened at numerous Jewish film festivals and also Middle Eastern film festivals, so the appeal of the film crosses cultural barriers. That’s the power of hummus.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
I have this crazy idea. Could a regional love of hummus be the recipe for peace in the Middle East? It’s wacky, but that was the starting point for this film’s delicious hummus journey.
“Funny, lively, and insightful” — that’s how I sold the film. It’s a fresh take on a 60-year-old battleground in the Middle East. I wanted to make a charming portrait, without taking sides, to examine the hummus conflict in Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine from the point of view of these people’s first shared love: chickpeas. Humor from both sides of the “plate” was the number one ingredient.
Finally, how do you like your hummus?
I make my hummus with lots of garlic and freshly ground black pepper. So I like my hummus peppery and spicy.
Check the latest SBIFF schedule here.