Syrian refugees by the tens of thousands have poured into Canada in the past few years as the civil war in Syria has continued to rage. Peace By Chocolate, a Canadian feature film by Jonathan Keijser, empathetically explores this wave of immigration through the eyes of a Muslim family from Damascus. Based on a true story, it is due to open in theaters on May 6.
Tareq Hadhad (Ayham Abou Ammar) arrives in Halifax in the dead of winter in 2015, having left his parents and sister behind in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. They left Syria following a missile strike on their chocolate factory.
Tareq, a medical student who was close to finishing his studies in Syria, is greeted effusively by his hosts, who provide him with a warm winter coat with a hood.
Much to his disappointment, he’s driven to Antigonish, a small, snow-bound town two to three hours by car from Halifax. He appreciates the hospitality, but calls his immigration lawyer to request a sponsorship in Toronto, where he expected to be sent.
Tareq’s parents, Issam (Hatem Ali) and Shahnaz (Yara Sabri), soon join him in Antigonish. Their joy is somewhat dampened by the news that their federal government benefits will dry up in 12 months.
“What will I do in this place?” Issam, a skilled chocolatier fluent only in Arabic, wonders.
He has every reason to be concerned. As portrayed in this film, Antigonish is not exactly a beehive of economic activity. Indeed, it seems downright somnolent, particularly in winter.
Wandering into a local coffee shop, Issam samples a chocolate product without asking for permission, and claims he can improve its taste. Since Issam can only speak Arabic, Kelly (Alika Autran), the owner, is shocked by his bold, unCanadian behavior. This awkward incident serves to underscore Issam’s cultural isolation and his current status as a stranger in a strange land.
To add to Issam’s woes, his married daughter, Alaa, is denied a Canadian visa, leaving her in limbo in the Middle East. Upon hearing the bad news, Shahnaz threatens to return to Lebanon.
Bored and frustrated, Issam whips up a batch of Damascus-perfect chocolates. He’s back in his element, but Shahnaz claims that this chapter of his life lies in the past. Tareq offers Issam no encouragement either, reminding him he does not have the equipment to make a go of it commercially.
Thanks to Frank (Mark Camacho), one of the sponsors, Issam sells a bundle of chocolates at a church fair. Kelly, having bitten into one of his chocolates, offers to carry them in her shop.
As Issam’s fortunes rise, Tareq encounters turbulence when Dalhousie University’s medical school rejects his application. It is the first of a rash of rejections.
A local Arab doctor, Antigonish’s sole surgeon, advises Tareq that he must “hustle” and network to achieve success. His advice prompts Tareq to deliver several motivational speeches about himself and his dream of becoming a doctor.
This subplot blends in with Issam’s determination to revive his career as a chocolatier. Frank and his friends give Issam an interest-free $12,000 loan to start Peace by Chocolate, a chocolate factory in a hut adjoining Frank’s house. Kelly, whose business is barely keeping its head above the water, is upset by the competition.
As word of Issam’s wonderful chocolates circulates, a Sobeys supermarket chain executive offers to invest in Peace by Chocolate. Issam’s happiness is tempered by Tareq’s adamant refusal to work in the factory, much less taste his chocolates. He is totally focused on completing his medical studies.
As the business grows, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mentions Peace by Chocolate in a speech at the United Nations. At this juncture, the factory is served with a municipal notice that it requires a food establishment permit to operate. Someone in town who dislikes Syrian refugees has snitched on Issam. It’s clear that xenophobia is not an alien phenomenon in Canada.
Despite this downer, Peace by Chocolate is a heart-warming, uplifting, skillfully-directed film, celebrating the virtues of Canadian openness and tolerance.
The film unfolds at a pleasant pace, and the cast, comprising of Canadian and Syrian-born actors, is convincing all the way through. By Hollywood standards, Peace by Chocolate is a small and unprepossessing movie. But in every other respect, it moves a viewer and leaves an indelible impression.