French filmmaker Jonas Pariente, the brain behind Grandma’s Project–a UNESCO-backed web documentary series–speaks to Clay Pot about his efforts to share the world’s most delicious heritage

By Monty Majeed

Simone Anneix aka Mamie Yoda is a bit shy and conscious. She is clumsier than usual and is feeling out of place as her grandson Irvin tries to film her making his favourite lait de poule or egg nog. She is not used to the gadgets he is carrying and twitches with pain when he tries to make her wear his fancy GoPro head gear. Anneix also expresses concern about her failing memory and is worried that it might show on screen. She giggles nervously for a bit till she gets into the groove of cooking peacefully with her grandson. The egg nog she ends up making may not have turned out the way she expected it to, but the joy on her face tells us how much she has enjoyed the whole process.

Anneix is the star of one of the short documentaries that feature in the collaborative web-series titled Grandma’s Project. The brainchild of French filmmaker Jonas Pariente, the project shares recipes and stories of grandmas around the world, filmed by their grandchildren. Having received UNESCO’s patronage earlier this year, the project invited young filmmakers to submit films that are less than eight minutes long, about their grandmothers, cooking and speaking about any of their beloved recipes. There are five films (including Pariente’s) already up on their website and each one of them is a beautiful exploration of the relationship between a grandparent and their grandchild through the medium of food.

Oftentimes, our first brush with our family histories begins with the food our grandmothers cook. They, in fact, lead us into the process of cultural initiation and identity formation. Being half-Egyptian and half-Polish, Pariente noticed that the food he was fed as a child played a crucial role in the transmission of heritage from either side of his family. The project is a perfect example of how much our personal histories and the food we eat are intertwined and how they feed into each other. Grandma’s Project, which is a Kickstarter success story, hopes to complete 30 such short films in its first season and release them through their interactive website.

A scene from Molokheya, featuring Parientes grandma, Nano.

Other than Anneix, there is Susie Pariente, the founder’s grandmother, who rummages through her extensive collection of frozen meat for her grandson’s favourites as she puts her Egyptian herbed beef stew, Molokheya, to a simmer. There is Rosa Maluf Milan, a Lebanese grandmother who migrated to Brazil but still swears by her traditional dishes and beliefs, who teaches her grandson to cook special meat rolls called Mehchi. And, there is Dragica Karazija, the grandmother from Croatia, who, while cooking sweet dumplings called Knedle, tells her granddaughter that she is fed up of the new generation’s irresponsible ways of tasting a dish from the pot with a spoon and putting it right back in.

With every film, we get to know a bit more about not just the food these grandmas cook up, but also snatches from their beautiful and colourful youth and sometimes even bitter stories of their days of struggle. It opens one tiny window at a time into what Pariente calls the “world’s most delicious heritage” and allows us to document the tastes and memories of a time long forgotten.

We spoke to Pariente about the project and his food memories over email. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

How did this project come about?

I imagined most, if not all, of the project during one sleepless night, 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. I was living in NYC back then and while the entire city was celebrating the nation’s first black President, I was mourning a great loss. Fast forward to January 2013. I couldn’t sleep and decided to grab a piece of paper and pen to figure out where I was with my career. And, I wasn’t very happy.

After directing and producing a debut documentary I was very proud of – Next year in Bombay in 2010 – 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 started remembering the project I had started before moving to New York. I wanted to do a documentary about my two grandmothers, entitled Couscous Gefilt, exploring what my double heritage means to me. What role does it play in my life? And how is food so important in the transmission process of this heritage?

Since my Polish grandma was gone, I thought I could produce a collection of films, encouraging other filmmakers to shoot documentaries about their own grandmas and gather them into a platform that would become some kind of a world repository of recipes and stories of grandmas.

Ever since I studied in New York (MFA in Integrated Media Arts, a weird name that covers journalism, documentary filmmaking and new media), I have always been thinking of the internet before TV or cinema. Very quickly, I realised the potential of having such a collection of films available online rather than to a specific audience or country. First, it was serving my intention of placing these grandmas’ recipes as a world heritage that belongs to all of us. Second, it creates a dynamic, placing the people of my age in a position of questioning our elders’ heritage to make most of our present and future.

As a filmmaker and as a human being, I am passionate about questions of identity, migration and citizenship, and I thought that this project could carry both an artistic vision as well as a more humanistic mission. I find it very rare to find a project that encapsulates both these dimensions, and since that night Grandmas Project is my project of heart that I keep pushing and pushing forward.

Tell us a bit about your childhood and the kind of food that both your grandmothers made.

My Egyptian grandma has always fed my entire family. I mean it. Up to this day, she comes once a week to my place with tonnes of things she bought or prepared for my wife, kids and me. She brings cakes, fruits, smoked salmon, a Lebanese cheese called halumi​. She cooks a rice and lentils dish called megadara for my son. And, she does this for everyone–my parents, my brother, my cousins. It’s really insane. Now going back to my childhood, the thing I loved the most were her cheese borekas and her koftas (meatballs).

My Polish grandma made very tasty kotletchiki, another type of meatballs, which was obviously more Eastern European. I was a teenager when my grandpa introduced me to vodka as an appetiser, mostly had with marinated herring.

Do you cook often with your grandma and what are the dishes she has passed on to you?

I don’t cook with her, but I have filmed her cooking many of her recipes. The most typical Egyptian dish she makes, which is my family’s favourite, is molokheya. It’s the recipe that I feature in my film. ​It’s a beef stew with the herb called molokheya, fresh coriander, coriander seeds, garlic, lemon and onions. The stew is a served on top of rice and topped with salad. It’s marvellous.

Coming back to Grandma’s Project, could you explain a bit about the selection process? Who selects from the pitches you receive?

We have a jury now composed of Charlie Phillips, head of documentaries at The Guardian; Jordan McGarry, director of curation at Vimeo; Cecile Duvelle, who was head of intangible culture heritage at UNESCO from 2008 to 2015; Kristen Miglore, creative director at FOOD52; Anu Rangachar, head of international programming at the Mumbai Film Festival; Gregory Trowbridge, head of production at UPIAN and Kamiye Furuta, our ambassador who has been supporting us from the beginning.

The project was a huge Kickstarter success. How was the campaign collections used for funding the projects? And, what role does your production house, Chai Chai Productions play in the production of these films?

​We don’t pay the filmmakers, but, thanks to the Kickstarter campaign and the money we collected, we can finance the post-production of their films.​ Chai Chai Productions act as a mentor and provides artistic supervision to the filmmakers.

Are there any other criteria that the filmmakers have to follow other than that the film should be within 8 minutes?

They have to film their own grandmother and the film has to be centred around the transmission of a recipe.​

How did the UNESCO patronage come about?

What I tried to pitch to them was that this is a project which will have people from around the world participating. If they all share recipes and stories attached to these recipes, then it kind of will become like a huge documentation of intangible world heritage. I think it created an identity to the project that people who financed our campaign on Kickstarter and participating filmmakers understood that they were being a part of something bigger.

Of the five films online, four of them are participatory documentaries. The filmmakers appear at least once in them and there is an ongoing conversation with the grandmother and grandchild. Is this part of a brief given in the programme?

This is well-spotted! Yes, I tend to encourage the filmmakers in that direction. I guess the setup of filming your own grandma puts you on that path anyway. But, for instance, in one film that is in post-production right now, the director told me she didn’t want to be a character of her film. She reminded me that this wasn’t part of my three rules, so I had to go along with it… and the film is just as beautiful as the others. So, it is not a rule, but most filmmakers tend to ​gravitate towards such an approach.

What are your personal thoughts on the films made in the project till now? Do you see any similarities in the stories of the grandmothers or their food?

​The similarity I see is the reason why I started the project. You can see that in each film, the grandma is very relaxed. You feel, as a spectator, that ​they speak very naturally and about very deep subjects to the filmmaker, their grandchild. This is why the essence of the project is to have filmmakers filming their own grandmas. Otherwise, I could have directed a series on grandmas around the world, but I could not have been able to recreate that level of intimacy, trust and amusement that you feel in each of these films. This connection is what takes the series to a more personal level, one that each of us can relate to and enjoy at the same time.

According to you, how important is food to your relationship with your grandparents?

Food helps me reconnect with them. And, I am happy that many filmmakers have said this project did the same for them. People have thanked me for having given them a reason and opportunity to spend more time with their grandmas and try to connect with them at a different level. I feel that it is very easy to reconnect with tonnes of memories with just one bite of something. Like I said, whenever I eat herring and drink vodka, I feel like I am with my grandparents and I think of the time I spent with them in their lovely apartment. That, I think, is the real power of food.