When award-winning British director John Goldschmidt set out to make “Dough” five years ago, he had no idea how topical it would become by the time it was released. Debuting nationwide in the US on April 29, the warm and fuzzy comedic buddy film’s serious underpinnings relate to rising tensions between Europe’s Muslim and Jewish populations in the wake of recent Islamic terror attacks and the ongoing influx of Middle Eastern refugees.
“Dough” is the unlikely story of an alliance between an elderly, widowed Jewish kosher bakery owner and a teenage Muslim Darfuri refugee. As the Jewish population and economy of London’s East End declines, Nat Dayan (played by veteran actor Jonathan Pryce) reluctantly takes on young Ayyash (newcomer Jerome Holder) as a baking apprentice.
Unbeknownst to Nat (or Ayyash’s mother, who cleans the bakery), Ayyash has a side job selling marijuana as a means of supporting himself and his mother. One Friday, the apprentice accidentally drops a stash of pot into the challah dough as it mixes. Not surprisingly, the baked loaves are a huge hit with customers.
As word gets out about the amazing bread and patrons flock to the bakery, Ayyash decides to add weed to the muffins and bagels, and even convinces a clueless Nat to start selling (pot) brownies. Business booms, to the point that Nat just might be able to stave off a developer looking to buy out the block and expand his neighboring supermarket.
The rest of the film unfolds rather predictably after the high wears off and Nat discovers what’s behind the bakery’s sudden turnaround. Viewers leave the theater thinking not about the plot twists, but rather about the warm and respectful relationship between the Jewish baker and the Muslim teenager that develops and ultimately prevails.
“I wanted to make a gentle, humorous piece of entertainment. But at the same time, I wanted to deal with the issues of the day — in this case, Jewish-Muslim tensions in the UK and Europe,” Goldschmidt told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview from his home in London.
“When we started the film there were starting to be a lot of asylum seekers and economic migrants, but we didn’t anticipate the current Syrian War refugee catastrophe,” he added.
Goldschmidt, 72, commissioned the script from first-time screenwriter Yehudah Jez Freedman and his writing partner Jonathan Benson. The director expected Freedman to write about the British Jewish world he came from, but he instructed him not to deal specifically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We purposely made Ayyash a Darfuri Muslim. I didn’t want the Middle East baggage. The tension between the Palestinians and Israelis is such a huge topic that it’s too complicated to deal with. I wanted an unencumbered film that was accessible to a wider audience,” said Goldschmidt, who has Austrian Jewish roots.
(Sadly, writer Freedman died suddenly in April 2015 at age 36 from vascular Ehlers-Danos syndrome, an inherited disorder that affects connective tissues — primarily skin, joints and blood vessel walls. According to Goldschmidt, Freedman managed to see the completed version of the film shortly before his death.)
Pryce, who currently appears as the High Sparrow in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” became attached to the project early on. This enabled Goldschmidt to attract other established actors, such as Pauline Collins of “Shirley Valentine” fame, who plays Joanna Silverman, a Jewish widow with eyes for Nat.
“I had to go for an unknown to play Ayyash, because unlike in the US, there simply aren’t any famous young black actors in the UK,” Goldschmidt explained.
Jerome Holder, a 21-year-old university student and sometimes actor, got the part — a major break for him.
“My agent told me about the role and that Jonathan Pryce was already cast. I wasn’t about to turn down an audition like that,” Holder told The Times of Israel as he took a break from studying for final exams in English at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford.
Born into a family originally from Jamaica and Barbados, Holder grew up Christian in London. Although he no longer attends church as he did as a boy with his grandmother, he still believes in God and identifies as a cultural Christian. However, while he needed coaching on the “Dough” sets in London and Budapest as to how to accurately pray on camera according to Muslim tradition, Holder did not come into the project completely unfamiliar with the Islamic faith.
“Growing up, my best friend was a Muslim, and there was a Muslim community near where we lived,” he recounted.
On the other hand, the Jewish practices portrayed in the film were completely new to Holder.
“At this point, I consider myself a surrogate Jew, but going into it I didn’t know much about Jewish culture. But I learned. I have been very impressed by how Jews operate as a family and community. There’s a real sense of togetherness and warmth among Jews,” he reflected.
‘At this point, I consider myself a surrogate Jew’
Holder hopes the film will both open a dialogue about Jewish-Muslim relations and combat stereotypes. He’s been pleased with the engaging discussions at Q&A sessions following the film’s screening at Jewish and other film festivals.
“The media has an Islamophobic slant. I’ve met many people who are the opposite of the portrayals in the media. I want the film’s viewers to see what I have seen,” the actor said.
“Dough” hits theaters as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic continue to issue half-baked statements fanning the flames of xenophobia. The film may seem as light and airy as the irresistible cannabis-infused challahs, but it’s actually quite heavy. There’s what to be learned from how its two main characters come up with a recipe for preventing their interfaith partnership from going up in smoke.
Proceeds from a May 31, 2016 screening of ‘Dough’ in Modi’in, Israel will support the Yehuda Jez Freedman Foundation. Call 08-9737333 ext.1 for more information and tickets.