Jonas Parienté is a filmmaker who produces and directs documentaries, commercials and digital campaigns. He grew up in a large Jewish family in Paris. His mother’s mother, Jadzia Cébula, was born in 1916 in Poland; his father’s mother, Suzanne Parienté, was born in Egypt in 1933. It is the influence of these two different heritages that have led Jonas to be fascinated with questions of identity, migration and citizenship in his work as a filmmaker and now as the founder of Grandmas Project. With the project soon to expand globally, this seemed a good time for JFE® to talk with Jonas about Jewish food, grandmothers and more.
Jewish Food Experience®: It seems the best place to start is with your own grandmothers, one Polish and one Egyptian, which is such an interesting cultural and culinary mix. What do these two different parts of your heritage mean to you and how have you been influenced throughout your life?
Jonas Parienté: This is a brilliant question, and I keep exploring it as an ongoing process. I think I owe my career choice–of being a documentary filmmaker–to this heritage. When I was a kid, I took it for granted that none of my grandparents could speak French without an accent. Somehow I imagined it was the same for all the other kids. I also found normal that within the same weekend, visiting my mother’s parents one day and my father’s parents the other day, I could pretty much travel from Warsaw to Cairo, from Yiddish to Arabic, from herring to borekas. I lived in a triple world: my French Parisian world, my Oriental universe and my Eastern-European dimension.
It was only later–I was probably in high school–that I fully realized this wasn’t the norm, that I was indeed the heir of immigrants and, through them, of a rich, important history. I started relating to it as an honor and responsibility. Now one of the biggest influences is my ability to dialogue with people from any kind of background and a constant curiosity for cultures. Actually this first question you’re asking me is one of the questions I ask the most to other people.
JFE: With this rich background, it seems you must have some great memories of Jewish food and celebrations from your childhood.
JP: The first thing that comes to mind is the Pesach (Passover) celebrations with my Egyptian grandparents, who were always inviting my Polish family. So my entire family, a crowd of 25 to 30 people, always gathered for this occasion. I loved the moment when my grandpa would go from person to person with the Pesach plate to softly touch our heads. It had some kind of magic.
Then there are my Egyptian grandma’s really special recipes for Pesach that make it an eight-day treat rather than a stomach-upsetting burden. Nano (as I call her) makes matzah-based quiches (or tarts) called “minas” stuffed with spinach and cheese, cheese and tomato sauce or beef. This latter version is usually eaten with juicy beets. The main trick of these tarts is to soften the matzah with water and dip it into a mix of egg, salt and pepper. She also makes tiny bites that she calls “pizzas,” stuffed with cheese, tomato and oregano. For dessert she prepares delicious chocolate macaroons and coconut bites, all with matzah flour, of course. Nano usually prepares these minas and desserts weeks in advance and freezes them, so each family has a batch of food for the whole eight days.
JFE: Sounds delicious! Your passions for food and film come together in your current work, Grandmas Project. When, how and why did the project come about?
JP: I imagined most of the project during one sleepless night in January 2013, a couple of months after I turned 30 and a few months before my Egyptian grandma turned 80. My Polish grandma had passed away in 2008, the day of Barack Obama’s first election.
So the night I couldn’t sleep, I decided to figure out where I was at with my career. I wasn’t very happy. After directing and producing my 2010 debut documentary, which I was very proud of–Next Year in Bombay–I felt I was chasing jobs and projects without putting any meaning into it. I figured I had to find what I cared about the most to find the drive I was missing. I remembered that I had once started a documentary about my two grandmothers, entitled Couscous Gefilt, exploring the very question you asked me first: what does this double heritage mean to me? What role does it play in my life? And why is food so important in the transmission process of this heritage?
I thought I could produce a collection of films, encouraging other filmmakers to shoot documentaries about their own grandmas and gathering them into an online platform that would become some kind of world repository of recipes and stories of grandmas. Since that sleepless night, Grandmas Project is the project of my heart that I keep pushing and pushing forward.
JFE: Why are grandchildren creating these videos of their grandmothers?
JP: Most people who participate in the project are probably between 15 and 40 years old, so their living grandparents would have been born during the first half of the 20th century, just like my grandmas. Members of this generation are a living memory of a world that feels long gone and yet is at the origins of urbanization, World War II, decolonization, feminism and more of our actual world.
What I find extraordinary is that when asking a grandma to teach us a recipe, we actually get bites of this history, of this change of eras. When I cook an Egyptian dish or enjoy marinated herring with a shot of vodka, I instantly reconnect with my family’s journey across the years, across the lands, across the wars. And I find that relating to our grandparents with these questions is often simpler than with our parents. The relationships with grandparents are less complex, more direct.
JFE: Where is Grandmas Project today? What are your hopes and goals for it going forward?
JP: In June 2014, I won a prize at a documentary market that enabled me to produce three pilots: my own film about my Egyptian grandmother, a piece by director Iva Radivojevic about her Croatian grandma (tackling the Yugoslavian war and Iva’s artistic career while making an apricot k’nadle) and Mathias Mangin’s film about his Brazilian grandma (discussing the Lebanese roots of the family and the role of men in oriental culture over the preparation of stuffed grape leaves).
In May 2015 we raised $21,000 on Kickstarter and also attracted lots of media attention, which helped us create an online community and a great photo series, “Grandmas of our backers.” Now people are sending me their photos along with short essays about their grandmas, talking about memory, food and heritage, which created a kind of Stage 1 of the project in a very organic manner.
Once the partners and additional financing are in place, we will launch an international call for projects, reaching out to as many filmmakers as possible, in diverse parts of the world. Within 12 months we’re hoping to release the first version of the Grandmas Project’s interactive website with a minimum of 30 films and recipes, coming from all parts of the world.
JFE: We’ll look forward to seeing the Grandmas Project website. In the meantime, do you have a Jewish food recipe that you would like to share with us?
JP: I think the easiest way is to direct you to my film on my grandma’s molokheya, a meat stew that is the most typical Egyptian meal. I’m not sure the Jews do it differently than the Arabs. It’s just plain delicious, although it can take a few times to become fond of it. But once you are, there’s no going back!
Top photo: A sample of the website shows how easy it will be to read a stories and recipes from grandmas around the world.
All photos courtesy of Jonas Parienté.