What do you think of when you think of chocolate? Decadence? Dieting? An industry rife with exploitation and labour abuses?
Toronto director Michael Allcock offers a peek at the various sides of chocolate in the new documentary Semisweet: Life In Chocolate, airing on TVO on June 6. The film tells four stories – of Ron Obadia and Nadine Artemis, two raw food enthusiasts who make organic chocolate at their farm in Haliburton, Ont.; of employees who live and work in Hershey, Pa., known as “The Sweetest Place on Earth”; of Parisian high-end chocolatier Patrick Roger; and of individuals from Burkina Faso and Mali who’ve been lured to work in cacao plantations in neighbouring Ivory Coast.
As Mr. Allcock tells The Globe, chocolate means very different things to different people.
You’ve said you weren’t interested in doing an investigative piece on the chocolate industry. What was the story you wanted to tell?
The idea was to transcend the idea of chocolate. Chocolate is so pervasive in our society. You go anywhere, you see chocolate. So I wanted to look at it from a health standpoint, from a labour-political standpoint, from – whatever you want to call Hershey, Pa. – I guess an actual community, and then in Paris, to look at a person we consider a real artist when it comes to chocolate, who is also is using chocolate to educate people about the environment.
How did you find and choose your subjects?
Ron and Nadine – I’d heard about them because they’d been arrested because the authorities had confused their chocolate with hash. They were obviously acquitted, but I’d heard about them that way.
I found Patrick Roger online. He was the most interesting because he wasn’t just an accomplished chocolate maker, he also had a conscience. In Africa, we worked with [the non-government organization]Save the Children. They brought us there and they were able to open a lot of doors. And I just called the Hershey company and went through their whole PR machine, which is a massive one. It’s miraculous they even let us go there, frankly.
What does Ron and Nadine’s chocolate taste like?
The thing about Ron and Nadine’s chocolate is it’s a paradigm shift. What they’re basically saying is this isn’t candy. This is food.
One day we didn’t have time to get something to eat and I got a chocolate bar off of Ron and Nadine, and we were good to go for the rest of the day. It’s closer to an energy bar. It’s dense, and there’s nothing that comes between you and the bean. They’re taking these raw beans and they’re grinding them down into a paste that is eventually the chocolate.
In 2010, The Hershey Company announced it was closing its historic factory and cutting 500 jobs. How did that impact the town?
Well, 500 people lost their jobs. In a smaller community, that’s a big impact. Hershey said to me they’re converting the old factory into offices and retail so they’re going to maintain the appearance of it, but it changes the town.
The main reason they’ve closed the factory is because the ceilings weren’t high enough for them to put in modern equipment, so they’ve built this massive new complex at the edge of the town. In fairness, instead of sending everything down to Mexico or wherever else, they’ve kept business local. But it changes the way visitors come to Hershey and see what it is. The centrepiece is no longer alive.
The individuals you interviewed in West Africa spoke of the treacherous nature of the cacao industry. Did you ask Hershey where they source their cacao?
I had to be very, very careful when I spoke to them. There were two, sometimes three PR people following us everywhere. I thought if I talked that way directly, they may cut off the interview. I asked them where their cacao comes from. One person didn’t know. If we’d asked to meet about where they get their cacao, we would’ve never gotten a meeting.
This interview has been condensed and edited.