‘Peace by Chocolate’ Film Review
Starting Over is Bittersweet
Peace by Chocolate, is the uplifting and poignant film telling the story of a family of Syrian refugees who make a completely new life for themselves in Canada. The award winning film written by Jonathan Keijser and Abdul Malik, and directed by Jonathan Keijser chronicles the journey of the Hadhad family through chaos and darkness into warmth, love and light. The film reveals that an open heart which loves others and helps, creates a sustaining fountain of giving that saves lives and encourages kindness, decency and community despite great differences in religion, language and culture.
Like many successful and loving families who are caught up as casualties of war, the Hadhad’s flee the bombing of Damascus in war-torn Syria where they have lost everything, but their lives. They lived in the once beautiful Damascus on the Mediterranean, the last stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups that have been trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad since 2011. Al-Assad assisted by Putin’s general, the “Butcher of Syria” and other groups, left at least 350,000 people dead, and caused half the population to flee their homes, including almost six million refugees abroad as of October 2021.
The Hadhads who fled when Papa Isam’s factory was bombed and there was a window of escape, ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon for three years. Upset with their homeless state and their plight there, they gain sponsorship to emigrate to Canada rather than to stay and wait for the war to end then return to their home. Theirs was a practical decision considering the Syrian Civil War is still going on today. However, the decision to leave their culture, identity, language and future in the land where their ancestors lived for centuries is a momentous one.
The result is fraught with sorrow and hardship, however, the film concentrates on the point that the Hadhads are flexible and never look back as painful as that is. The most important factor on their agenda is that they all be together. Thus, with a brief reference to the backstory, the film centers on Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar) the oldest son who speaks English and is the first to arrive and make the way for the rest of the family. Tareq is disappointed about many things. Foremost is that he was almost done with his studies to be a doctor when the war dislocated his future. Will he be be able to continue his studies in Canada?
As Tareq’s sponsors drive him to his new home, Keijser emphasizes the humor in the tremendous culture and setting shifts Tareq experiences going from the warm Mediterranean to the freezing snow and wind driven Atlantic North. Unhappy and disappointed, he registers the unappealing facts about small town Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. Nothing seems to be happening; there is little business, and there are no Syrians or Arabs. The Hadhads had preferred to stay with friends in Toronto, Ontario which would provide many employment opportunities and which had a large Syrian population. However, that opportunity is closed off to them. They have ended in the backside of nowhere. Is this their destiny?
Tareq does make one Arab friend and his sponsor Frank (Mark Camacho) is absolutely welcoming and kind. When his parents Isam (Hatem Ali) and Shahnaz (Yara Sabri) finally arrive, his father finds it difficult to settle in. He is displaced and bored. Though they receive public assistance, Isam refuses to take it and tries to ingratiate himself with the town’s candy maker, Kelly (Alika Autran) who is frightened when he comes behind the counter to check out her chocolate making operation.
At this point we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, Isam was, as Tareq tells Kelly, the finest chocolatier in all of Syria and he is impatient to reveal his secrets to her and increase her business. However, he cannot convey to Kelly what he wishes for her to do to improve the taste of her chocolate and she freaks out. Just in time, Tareq comes into the store and saves his father and apologizes to her. But it is the first of a number of road blocks that the Hadhads must break through in order to begin to feel they can offer their gifts to the Canadians.
Above all, it is very depressing because their language, culture, intentions and differences appear to be an impossible leap for any of them to make to the other side to immerse themselves in a society that is vastly disparate from theirs. The only thing they have in common is that they are human beings.
On top of this Tareq finds the education that he had in Syria to become a doctor differs from Canadian requirements. He doesn’t have the right paperwork. All was lost to him, so he brings one sheet of paper to show examiners which isn’t hardly enough. As if that doesn’t push all of them near the edge, Alaa (Najla Al Kamri) has been detained and her passage to Canada has been denied. The only thing that keeps them going is their love for each other and Frank’s love and great encouragement. Frank has become a friend and his church does everything it can to help the family feel welcome.
As a last resort against boredom and the need to give back to the country that saved their lives, Isam goes to Kelly’s chocolate shop and buys chocolates with the money allotment that the government gives the family, which will run out in a year. He gathers the things together and makes delicious chocolates in the family’s small kitchen. Frank and Isam bring these to the church and they are a sellout. Because the chocolates are incredibly delicious and there’s a high demand, Frank and Isam collaborate and Isam expands.
However, Kelly is resentful especially after she invites Isam to make chocolate in her shop. He declines her offer because her ingredients and method are inferior. He knows if he doesn’t persist in what he can do best, it will be a curse. Isam always relies on God to show him the way and create the best way for him. He cannot leave his first estate. However, he can transfer his gifts to another country. That is a blessing. Of course, Kelly doesn’t understand and later this creates problems.
Meanwhile, Tareq is between a rock and a hard place wanting to become a doctor and helping his father grow the business which is his family’s treasure and legacy. The wedge becomes such a canyon of distrust between father and son, it creates terrible tensions which nearly cost all of them. This is especially so when they learn that Alaa’s husband has been killed in the war and she has yet to receive the proper visa to join her family in Canada.
How the Hadhads overleap the impossible and become known to Justin Trudeau is a miraculous story that has blessed everyone who hears it. Likewise, a blessing arrives to everyone who eats a piece of Isam’s chocolate. Why? It is named for the message the family brings to their new homeland, “Peace by Chocolate.”
This is a beautiful film rendered with care. Concerned for the social good, the superb director and wonderful actors. clue us in to what is important in life: family, kindness, decency and hospitality. It shouldn’t be missed especially now that another refugee crises is at our doorsteps and talented, loving individuals are needing to start a new life since their other life has been destroyed. Can we not open the doors to them knowing what they give to us will be a hundredfold of what we give to them?
Peace by Chocolate will be released in select theaters starting April 29th and On Demand thereafter on June 10th.