(Written by Allison Brown)
Peace by Chocolate, directed by Jonathan Keijser, is a charming immigration story told through a lens unlike its predecessors. Instead of a film set in the United States, where Middle Eastern immigrants are looked at with disgust and many times, automatically assumed to be terrorists, this tale takes place in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Based on a true story, we follow the handsome Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar) after he and his family have escaped a war-torn Syria for a Lebanon refugee camp and eventually, a new home in Canada. Following the bombing of their family-owned chocolate factory, they decide to leave behind their friends, family, and everything they know and love in the hopes of a fresh start. The ironic part, however, is that this film actually portrays a new happier life for the Hadhads. Aside from the obvious language barrier between Tareq’s family and the rest of the community, they enjoy a pretty happy life.
The family’s move to Canada is part of a government initiative to set refugees up with sponsorships and $2,000 per month for a year to sustain themselves. After this trial period, they are on their own. At first, when Tareq meets Frank (Mark Camacho) and his wife at the airport, he is instantly overwhelmed, both by the cold and their talkative nature. Frank comedically asks Tareq, “how is your English” in a slow tone, and Tareq responds with clear knowledge of the language. Tareq’s parents, Issam (Hatem Ali) and Shahnaz (Yara Sabri), are waiting to follow him as their daughter, Alaa (Najlaa Al Khamri), is initially denied a visa. After some heavy convincing, Issam and Alaa make it to Canada while they await Alaa, and the true hijinks of the film begin.
There are many hilarious moments in Peace by Chocolate, as the Hadhads begin to integrate into Canadian life. Tareq is flustered by the line, “How’s she goin by, eh?” and asks Frank’s wife to explain it. Even she doesn’t have a great grasp on the true meaning of the colloquial phrase. My favorite scene is when Frank teaches Issam how to shovel snow, and Issam accidentally shovels the snow into Frank’s face. Showing the nature of his threatening history, he instantly puts his hands up in fear (which he does several times during the movie). Frank shows Issam that mistakes are okay, as he throws more snow at himself in comic relief.
Issam feels guilty being handed free government money, but the family struggles as they are unsure how to contribute to this new and strange society. Tareq dreams of completing his medical degree, but he is the only one who would be able to work, as there are “no jobs without English.” After facing rejection from the job office, Issam stumbles upon a local chocolate factory owned by Kelly (Alika Autran). He walks in, tastes a sample, and immediately turns his face in disgust. Attempting to offer assistance as “the best chocolatier in Syria,” he tries to walk behind the counter to improve her chocolate. The stagnant language barrier leaves both Kelly and Tareq in a state of fear and confusion, until Tareq walks in to resolve the conflict. This scene was perhaps the funniest feat of the entire film!
This interaction triggers Issam to revisit his career in chocolate as a way to support his family. He returns the next day to buy Kelly’s chocolate making kit and sets his sights on a mission to refine his formula in Frank’s humble kitchen, using common household pots, pans, and ice cube trays as molds.
Tareq’s dreams of medical school and Issam’s chocolate business are both met with a lack of support from their family. Shahnaz says “this part of their lives is over” and “no one will like your chocolate.” However, the sponsor family loves it! Frank brings the Hadhads and their homemade delights to a local church to sell, and it is an instant hit. Issam muses, “You’d think Canadians discovered chocolate for the first time.” Frank becomes like a brother to Issam as his only friend in Nova Scotia and is quickly absorbed into the emerging business. The burgeoning product becomes so successful that Kelly offers Issam a spot on her shelves for his confectionaries, as well as a full-time job. Issam turns the offer down without even the kindness of a response. Tareq, as the only English-speaking family member, falls into the role of the public face of the brand and is slowly pulled away from his dreams of becoming a doctor by his father. As the business grows, Issam becomes more and more dependent on his son: “without you I’m illiterate.”
The community, aside from competing chocolatier Kelly, is shockingly supportive to Issam’s Peace by Chocolate brand. When the family’s religious beliefs prevent them from taking a Canadian loan with interest (apparently Islamic banks have zero interest loans!), selfless townsfolk offer up a collective good deed. Frank collects $12,000 through a money pool of $2,000 per person, and erects a shed for Issam to expand his chocolate factory. Perhaps the stereotypes are true: folks in Canadians are just incredibly nice people. It seems astoundingly unbelievable, despite being based on fact. I could never see something like this set in the United States.
Thankfully, Peace by Chocolate offers notes of realism towards the end, as conflicts occur when one character tries to cross the US-Canada border, and another experiences a major medical emergency. It is impossible to not feel empathy for this family, as the clash between the Syrian culture they left behind and their new environment is at points extremely jarring. As I always look up the true story following a film of this nature, I was pleasantly surprised by the film sharing photos of the real-life Hadhad family. It was great to see how widespread the product has become, and I am now dying to order a chocolate sampling online to try.
The Hadhad family will be bringing Peace by Chocolate delicacies to a town near you as it premieres virtually at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, June 17. “One peace won’t hurt!”