TRIBECA REVIEW: Peace By Chocolate (2021)
When your country is in the midst of a civil war, it would seem like getting to the point where you have to decide to leave home and become a refugee would be the hardest part. And then getting a placement to establish residency in another country willing to take you in: that’s also the hardest part. But once you’re safe and sound in your new home, that’s when things start to get easier, right? Peace By Chocolate, based on the true story of a Syrian refugee family settled in rural Canada, makes one thing clear: every single aspect of being a refugee is the hardest part. But at the same time, it offers a message of home, that it is possible to rebuild and start a new life even when you’ve had everything taken from you. Although audiences may be likely to get a toothache from Peace By Chocolate’s more saccharine instincts, it’s an undeniably affecting feel-good story that hits all the right notes.
Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar) has always dreamed of being a doctor. Even when his medical school in Damascus was being bombed, he stuck it out for as long as he possibly could. But when he and his family are sponsored to move to a tiny town in Nova Scotia, he’s faced with the terrifying prospect of having to start completely over. None of his credits are transferable, and he is turned down by school after school. It’s not just his future as a doctor that’s been lost, either: his family had to leave behind everything they spent a lifetime building. For his father Issam (played by Hatem Ali in his final role, filmed before his unexpected death of a heart attack at age 58), that means the chocolate factory he devoted his life to. Without it, he’s utterly bereft, an old man with few other marketable skills and only the most rudimentary English.
But Issam isn’t content waiting around for a monthly handout (as he sees it) from their sponsors, so he gets to work. Thus Peace By Chocolate is born. There’s just one problem: the more successful his new chocolate business becomes, the more reliant Issam is on Tareq, not only to serve as a translator but to help navigate this whole new Canadian way of operating a company that is completely foreign to him. Fareq secretly applies to medical schools, eager for his own life to begin and stuck between a Western culture that values individualism, and his own upbringing, where the expectation is that family always comes first. These two instincts will war within Fareq throughout Peace By Chocolate.
The entire production is a very moving refugee story, and that’s largely because it actually happened. The Hadhad family own and operate Peace By Chocolate out of Antigonish to this day, and the real Tareq splits his time between the business, public speaking engagements, and humanitarian efforts. It’s incredibly powerful to watch them lose everything (and it’s hard for us to grasp how total that loss of everything is), yet still perseveres through hardship to create a new beginning.
But at the same time, Peace By Chocolate runs the very real risk of being too sweet — even for a movie that revolves around chocolate. Their neighbours are incredibly kind and generous, Fareq has little trouble acclimating to his new country, and even the visa issues faced by his sister are dealt with in minimal detail. And that may have been how things were in real life. They probably did establish a deep and loving friendship with the Antigonish neighbors who were part of the group that sponsored them to come to Canada in the first place. But on screen, it walks along a razor’s edge of being cloyingly saccharine. There’s enough in Peace By Chocolate that isn’t so blindingly sunny, though, which helps it balance itself out. And really, the most compelling part of the film is the relationship between father and son: one impatient to start his own life, the other achingly vulnerable as a stranger in a strange land.
At the end of the day, Peace By Chocolate is exactly the sort of inspirational story that comes across more as a hug than a film. But it’s bolstered by strong leading performances, the genuine warmth of the real-life characters, and new perspectives on the refugee experience. With tremendous heart, it shows what it takes to be completely uprooted and not just survive, but lead a successful and fulfilling life. It may be cheesy in parts, but as a film constructed out of pure good will and positively, it’s hard to judge it too harshly.