Immigrant stories are treated as all-to-common and extraordinary in the same breath, especially in the United States and Canada. The majority of people who live in both countries did not originate there and each possess a legacy of doing terrible things to the Indigenous peoples who oversaw the land. But amid all the darkness, there is occasional light. First-time feature writer/director Jonathan Keijser (What Would Beethoven Do?) and first-time feature co-writer Abdul Malik tell the story of the Hadhad family of Syria who lost everything when their chocolate factory was bombed before being forced to move to a refugee camp until, ultimately, being offered shelter in small town Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. This is a story like many others, of families who face losing more than their homes, but their cultural identities amid the pressure of relocation. Though aspects of Keijser’s film hues a little too close to the expected dramatic beats of other immigrant tales, the performances from the cast enhance the fairly low-stakes family drama, allowing Peace by Chocolate to blossom from a minor confection into an exquisite treat.
With all “based a true story” films, there’s a certain measure of understood skepticism as cramming in years’ worth of conversations, conflicts, resolutions, and more into a quick 95 minutes is a mighty task for anyone. Keijser and Malik not only manage to keep the story moving, but they do so without breaking or disrupting the presented reality. There’s a flow, like a gentle stream, which takes us from moment to moment, interaction to interaction, so that we, the audience, never feel too overwhelmed by information nor underwhelmed by the emotional stakes. Bringing it all together is cinematographer Benoit Beaulieu (Banshee), who, in combination with some natural-toned production and set design, maintains an aura of pleasantness and positivity. The drama is entirely familial, the politics of why the Hadhad’s left Syria is mostly absent, enabling the story to narrow its focus to the discord within their own home vis-à-vis son Tareq’s (Ayham Abou Ammar) desires versus father Issam’s (Hatem Ali).
Just because the film doesn’t center on the catalyst for the story doesn’t mean it’s ignored. In the opening of the film, images of a bombed area are juxtaposed against a tight close-up of Tareq bundled tightly, blinking at the snow-covered landscape before him. What we see of the bombing is both from a first-person perspective and fuzzy. One might presume that it’s fuzzy in order to keep the film’s overall tone light, but another reading speaks to Tareq’s trauma of surviving the incident. In moments of intense stress, what we see and hear can be difficult for the brain to process, let alone remember. This is our introduction to Tareq, a Syrian far from a home that’s been destroyed. An outsider might see him as saved, yet he may (a) still carry the trauma of that moment with him and (b) now has new trauma as a refugee in a foreign country. To his benefit, Tareq speaks English, the apparent dominant language in the area of Canada he resettles in. This allows him to assimilate just a little easier, creating an immediate and new point of contention between him and his father, who does not speak nor understand English at all. Ali, who passed away in 2020 before the release of the film, channels a gravitas to Issam, so that simple emotions like joy, embarrassment, sadness, or anger are not too large nor too quiet to maintain the balance of story and tone. More than that, Ali’s performance invites the audience to consider an aspect of immigration — no matter the status upon arrival — that is often ignored in favor of platitudes or political posturing: the absolute isolation of moving to a foreign land. In one small, yet key scene, Ali’s Issam conveys that he has become so dependent on Ammar’s Tareq, that their roles have shifted to what they were in Syria. It feels obvious and is certainly expected given how much Tareq does for his father up to this point, but to hear it articulated by Issam is heartbreaking via Ali’s command of the scene.
The film does struggle from time to time due to its reliance on familial tropes like Tareq — the son who wants to leave the family business for medical — never eating chocolate, giving physical form to his reluctance to join the family business. There’s also an aspect of xenophobia, played mostly as an undercurrent or suggestion, except where the United States is involved, that feels like it should play a larger part in the overall story. Though, admittedly, this may be more expectation set by decades of immigrant stories where xenophobic hate crimes act as incitement for familial bonding or reconciliation. That Peace by Chocolate doesn’t lean on this particular narrative tool, whether or not it did played out this way in actuality, offers a bit of refreshment. In fact, this allows the film to center solely on the notion of doing good works and helping others. And, while the film does seem to have an internal opinion of cinematic Tareq, Peace by Chocolate never truly condemns his desire for something beyond chocolate. Usually, a film so focused on familial tension for its narrative payoffs makes a harsh distinction between right and wrong. Here, Keijser and Malik allow for a grey area to exist, one in which personal desire is presented as the complex notion it is.
As a fourth generation immigrant, I couldn’t help but wonder about my great-great grandfather Joseph Davidson, who came to America from Russia, worked in a tailor’s shop, and, later, started his own clothier’s shop which is currently run by my father, H. Lawrence Davidson. Growing up, I spent more than my fair share of days contributing to some aspect of the business well before I was of age to be hired legally. I went along on buying trips, applied tags to new merchandise in the warehouse, drove bags of product to the various locations around Virginia, and more, before I eventually worked on the sales floor. Not once did my father request or insist that I or my brothers take over. It always felt like, to him, us helping out was something we should do as members of his family. Like walking several miles with him up and down a mountain in the snow to shovel out the walkway in front of the store. But taking over was never a requirement. It was offered, but taking over wasn’t something he ever felt was necessary. In watching Peace by Chocolate, my mind would drift to my father, my uncle Steve, my grandfather Sigmund, and my great-grandfather: each member of the Davidson family who had held significant positions in running the business. How, when my father retires, even if someone carries the name, the store that I knew, that has been a source of immense pride and has offered comfort whenever I was somewhere close to one, will be gone. The legacy will have ended. It’s in this vein that Peace by Chocolate transcends the expected, sneaking up on you, guiding you toward emotional devastation and reconciliation. One reading of the film, based on the story created by Keijser and Malik, is how Issam doesn’t just attempt to rebuild his business because it’s all he knows (even as the dialogue implies the reason) but because of what it means to the Hadhad family to make chocolate, to bring joy that will last in customers’ hearts long after digestion is complete. In short, legacy. This is the notion I choose to take with me post-credits and the one which will linger for some time.
Peace By Chocolate has its world premiere during the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Peace by Chocolate film website.
For more information on the Hadhad Family Business (or to order a taste of your own), head to the official Peace by Chocolate website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.