Peace by Chocolate
Directed by Jonathan Keijser
Written by Jonathan Keijser and Abdul Malik
Starring Hatem Ali, Yara Sabri and Mark Camacho
Classification N/A; 96 minutes
Opens in select cities May 6
Many Canadians will recall the real-life story of a family of Syrian refugees who managed to turn the bitter hardships of war into a sweet shot at a second chance.
After leaving Lebanon for Antigonish, N.S., the Hadhad family recaptured their past as chocolate-makers in Damascus, by bringing their unique confections to small-town Canada and thus their company, Peace by Chocolate, was born. A new film by the same name retells that remarkable story, starring Hatem Ali as patriarch Issam, who boasts about being one of Syria’s best chocolatiers, and Ayham Abou Ammar as his son Tareq.
Tareq is the first of his family to arrive in Antigonish and is immediately taken aback by the tiny population and the biting cold. It’s far from home in countless ways, but the possibility of returning is simply untenable, as home no longer exists. Nevertheless, Tareq is determined to make the most of this new chapter, doggedly applying for medical schools in the province and forming a friendship with the town’s only surgeon, who happens to be Arab.
As Tareq encounters roadblocks and frustration on his journey to medical school, Issam, now in Canada, works with the family’s Canadian sponsor, Frank (Mark Camacho) and sees his chocolate business take off. Despite language and cultural barriers, Frank and Issam become close as they build Peace by Chocolate from the ground up, going from making chocolates in the Hadhad’s tiny kitchen and selling them out of the local church’s basement, to constructing a shed on the family’s front lawn to serve as a factory and storefront. But tensions mount as Issam is entirely reliant on Tareq, as the family’s only English-speaker, to act as translator, sole employee and default patriarch. It’s a role Tareq is in no hurry to embrace and this push and pull between father and son forms the central conflict of the film.
Unfortunately, the stakes, while impossibly high in real-life, fall flat in the movie version. The sweetness of the story is entirely too saccharine, with every possibility for conflict and tension – from small-town exclusion and pettiness to the structural racism that prevents new immigrants from accessing higher education and utilizing their previous experience to move into white-collar work – flattened by sugar coated storytelling that leaves little room for the true saltiness of the immigrant experience.
Although the film has a lot of charm and heartfelt, charismatic performances by Camacho and Ali (in one of his last roles), it’s not quite enough to overcome the slow-moving plot. There was plenty of grist to do justice to what the real Hadhads overcame and ultimately managed to achieve in such dire personal circumstances, yet Peace by Chocolate glosses over any trigger points or conflict in favour of an overly-earnest, movie-of-the-week approach that leaves you hungry for the real meat of this tale.
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