Cooking Up a Main Course of Coexistence


Gatherings in one Brooklyn Israeli-Palestinian family often end in political jabs that sometimes lead to harsh words. But the Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Muslim grandparents keep coming back to the table, that is, the dinner table.

“Abe” is a new film about the 12-year-old son of an Israeli-American mother and Palestinian-American father; one side of the family calls him Avraham or Avi, and the other side calls him Ibrahim, but he prefers Abe. Caught in the crossfire, Abe Solomon-Odeh loves food, and the only thing he loves more is cooking; he hopes to finally bring together the extended family he loves, in peace, over a great meal.

Conceived by Brazilian director Fernando Grostein Andrade, the coming-of-age film was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival. It was beautifully shot in Brooklyn by Italian cinematographer Blasco Giuratois (“Cinema Paradiso”).

Noah Schnapp (“Stranger Things”), now 15, shines as the very likeable Abe, and Brazilian musician, songwriter and actor Seu Jorge (“City of God”) is cool and charismatic as Chico, the street chef who mentors Abe without his family’s knowledge. Chico, whose popular outdoor pop-up restaurant near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge specializes in fusion cooking, believes that “mixing flavors can bring people together.”

In a telephone interview, Andrade explains the film was very much inspired by his own life. His maternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, who fled persecution in Europe in the 1930s, met in Uruguay, moved to Argentina and then moved to Brazil. His father’s family was Catholic. Andrade’s father died when he was 10, but before his death encouraged his son to become a bar mitzvah, which he did. He grew up close to both sets of grandparents and also to his very diverse extended families from the former spouses of both of his parents. He has warm memories of big holiday meals together, when his Jewish grandmother brought her varenikes, or Ukrainian dumplings.

Andrade had been thinking about doing a film on identity for the past 13 years, since his nephew Joachim was born, also in a family of mixed religion. Coincidentally, he finished editing the film on the day of the boy’s bar mitzvah. Andrade grew up and continues to identify as a Jewish man, although at many points in his life was made to feel marginalized.

He says that he turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a setting for this film out of a sense of responsibility.

“You can call me naïve,” he says. “I dream about peace.”

As part of his research, he and the production designer spent a month in Israel, meeting with Israelis and Palestinians, sometimes together, from different backgrounds, and with many in the food business. (In fact, he is now completing a documentary, “Flavors,” about seeing the Middle East conflict through the lens of food.)

There’s great food scenery in “Abe.” Viewers will enjoy Abe’s bold creativity in his family’s kitchen and then the choreography of slicing, simmering and tasting in a hectic restaurant kitchen — with Brazilian samba in the background — when Abe convinces Chico to let him work there. While his parents think he is at summer day camp, Abe washes pots and hauls garbage before Chico begins to teach him about cooking. As for Abe’s early culinary efforts — a ramen taco he brings from home — Chico says, “You’re mixing fusion with confusion.”

Veteran actor Marc Margolis is kind and loving as the Jewish grandfather, even as he is at odds with his daughter’s in-laws. There’s talk of Abe’s bar mitzvah, fasting for Ramadan, drinking wine for kiddush in one home and abstaining in the other. After some drama and comedy, more failed dinners where attempts are made to “take politics off the table,” there are final scenes that hint at hope, delicious food and vibrant views of a crowded Brooklyn park that now seems a relic of the distant past.

This is the debut narrative feature film for Andrade, who has made award-winning documentaries and television series on social issues, and it is his first English-speaking film. He collaborated with two Palestinian-American screenwriters, Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader, who co-created the play “Food and Fadwa,” which premiered at New York Theater Workshop. Andrade worked very closely with them on the script, “to be honest to the Jewish people and the Palestinians, so that they could each hear the other’s point of view. We were dreaming what most people think impossible.”

Originally from Sao Paolo, Andrade now lives in Los Angeles. While in Brazil, he ran a theater group for inmates in a maximum-security penitentiary, and later cast some of the people he worked with in his films and television series. He hopes to get involved in a similar project in the U.S.

“In a penitentiary, you think you are going there to help, but after a while you realize that the people there are helping you — to broaden your vision, to understand other people’s pain. We helped them gain self-esteem and learn empathy, emotional tools they would need to start a new life.”

Brooklyn was the last place that Andrade traveled with his late father, when he was a boy younger than Abe. For this Brazilian, the film is a tribute to New York’s diversity.

Referring to the current pandemic, he says, “We are in a moment when we need to rethink ourselves. The birds here in L.A. are singing in a way that they’ve never sung before. The skies are clear in a way they haven’t been before. We’re not the same people. We have an opportunity to think about peace and empathy, to see life through others’ eyes.”

“Abe” is available on demand and on digital.