Without peace there's no life...
It's difficult to explain just how much I look forward to Indy's Heartland International Film Festival every year. I suppose you could say there are some obvious, very tangible reasons for my anticipation. Heartland was one of the very first fests to recognize me as a member of the media many years ago. Of course, I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that Heartland's presenting two awards in my name, the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Awards, is also completely and utterly amazing.
However, it goes much deeper.
Heartland International Film Festival represents, quite literally, truly moving pictures. These are motion pictures that go beyond entertaining into the realm of truly making a difference in the world in big and small ways. For the entire run of the Heartland International Film Festival, I am able to immerse myself in life-changing cinema.
For me, it's fuel for the soul.
Jonathan Keijser's Peace by Chocolate is practically the definition of what it means to be a Heartland film. Based on a true story, Peace by Chocolate centers around the Hadhad family, a Syrian family that takes refuge in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada after the family's beloved chocolate factory is bombed in Syria. Issam is the head of the household, played to perfection by the late Hatem Ali. Welcomed into Canada and provided a $2,000 monthly stipend, Issam struggles to be on the receiving end of charitable ways and before long is making chocolate out of what is their temporary home. Very soon, this chocolate-making endeavor begins to expand.
While chocolate-making has always been the family's way of living, son Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar) longs to see his Syrian medical school training put into practice but struggles to gain acceptance and struggles even more with family expectations and pursuing his own dreams.
Peace by Chocolate is a big hearted film that never trivializes the refugee experience. It is, at least for the most part, a "feel good" film given that the Hadhad's are people you can't help but adore and their host Canadians are practically the definition of friendly neighbors. Yet, Peace by Chocolate also explores the complexities of changing homes, changing roles, changing cultures, and learning how to adjust to it all. Issam, for his part, struggles with a bit of dependence on his son while Issam's wife, Shahnaz (Yara Sabri), profusely worries about a daughter and others left behind. When his father's burgeoning chocolate business begins showing signs of success, Tareq is forced to deal with his expected role as business manager and his desired role as a physician.
There is, of course, a tension that grows between Issam and Tareq yet in a movie that so completely emphasizes the necessity of peace there's little doubt that this loving family will wind its way toward some sort of positive resolution.
It's getting there that is so completely wonderful and inspired.
Peace by Chocolate had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival and has already proven to be quite successful along its festival journey with prizes at Cordillera Film Festival (Best Director), Woods Hole Film Festival (Audience Award, Best Feature), Lavazza Italian Contemporary Film Festival (Jury Award, Best Feature), Loudon Arts Film Festival (Spotlight Award, Best Feature), and Fin Atlantic Film Festival (Best Editing).
Indeed, as should be evident, Peace by Chocolate is a wonderfully made, beautifully acted, and completely engaging film.
Hatem Ali, who passed away in December 2020, gives an engaging, charismatic performance as Issam, vividly capturing all the layers of a man whose entire life has been changed yet who finds himself welcomed into this new community and adjusting to it bit by bit. As Tareq, Ayham Abou Ammar draws us into his dilemma and makes us care about its outcome. Yara Sabri is also an absolute gem as Shahnaz.
Lensing by Benoit Beaulieu is warm and immersive with David Bertok's original music also adding immensely to the film's atmosphere.
Working from a true story, Jonathan Keijser tells it with intelligence and wisdom and an abundance of warmth and human spirit. The film feels familiar yet fresh, its story enveloping us and giving us a warm hug.
Peace by Chocolate continues on its festival run with screenings at Naples International Film Festival also this week and Japan's Rising Sun Film Festival coming up in November.
There are films that you watch during the Heartland International Film Festival and you find yourself thinking "This is really a Heartland film!" Peace by Chocolate is, indeed, the kind of film that Heartland audiences love and it is, without question, a truly moving picture.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic