Halifax-born filmmaker Jonathan Keijser, blue shirt, is seen pictured with the on-screen Hadhad family as they hold up peace signs.

ANTIGONISH: A feature film based on the true story of the Hadhad family, who fled Syria and re-established their family chocolate company within the four walls of their new home in rural Nova Scotia, will make its online world premiere at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival next month.

“It’s a big honour for sure, for our family, for our company, for our team, everyone has worked so hard since we came to Canada to get to this stage,” Tareq Hadhad, founder of Peace by Chocolate told The Reporter. “We have not only built a chocolate company, we have built a cause that uplifts others and certainly inspires people around the world to do good for their community and give back to humanity.”

Produced by Magnetic North, the film Peace by Chocolate, which shares a namesake of the family chocolate company, began pre-production in 2017 when Halifax-born filmmaker Jonathan Keijser contacted Hadhad to talk about the possibility of making a movie based on their story.

“I think that movies change entire worlds and we need that changing moment for so many people who were hesitant about immigration, had questions about what immigrants can do in their new communities, and who had misunderstandings between cultures,” Hadhad said. “People will understand that our family for example came to Antigonish, we were the first Syrian family to arrive in a small town in Nova Scotia, and (really) no one in the town was speaking Arabic when we arrived.”

After fleeing war-torn Lebanon after the family’s chocolate factory is bombed, Hadhad, who is played by Ayham Abou Ammar, and his Syrian family immigrate to the small town of Antigonish.

“The family had to adjust, had to adapt and had to integrate, and you sometimes forget that integration is a key reason for success,” Hadhad explained. “Throughout the movie there is that journey of humanity at all levels that connects and transcends our differences as human beings and bring us together.”

His father Isam, played by the late Hatem Ali, starts making chocolates again that are a hit at the local church, neighbourly Frank Gallant, portrayed by Mark Camacho, rounds up local investors for a new factory, while local chocolatier Kelly, played by Alika Autran, feels threatened by the rivalry.

Hadhad indicated everyone in the family is “over the moon excited” for the opportunity to have leading superstars from the Middle East who they grew up watching playing their roles, but noted the biggest one, won’t get a chance to see it.

“Hatem Ali, who played my dad, died unexpectedly in December last year in Cairo with a heart attack, he’s a legendary director, a legendary actor, and this was his last acting role,” Hadhad said. “Yara Sabri is a person we grew up watching on TV in every new series and was an absolute great inspiration for all of us, and we had no idea we would shake hands with her one day, and now she’s playing a main role in our movie as my mom.”

As a bit of an “Easter Egg,” a hidden message, character or image often found in media, there is a scene in the movie where the Hadhad family are background extra actors and are seen behind the actors portraying them.

While Isam’s “Peace by Chocolate” business continues to grow, Hadhad finds himself torn between his dream of becoming a doctor and his obligation to the family business.

“Everyone is really excited, as a family we always believed we are not victims for sharing our stories, we are survivors, we are setting the world on fire with our truths,” Hadhad said. “I’ve never seen our family more excited for a project than the book last year and now the movie that’s coming out, everyone in the family gets really into spreading the happiness and values.”

He said he only recently saw the trailer for the first time, but it’s very uplifting, it’s very bright and while the movie has an ending, the Hadhad family’s journey is far from over.

Based on the Hadhad’s real-life story, Keijser’s narrative feature debut encompasses the themes of immigration, refugees from a war-torn country, the power of food to bring people together, the “Canadian Dream” of growing a small business and prospering, and choosing between individual passion and family.

“Right now our brand in Canada is very well-known. His goal to spread Peace by Chocolate across the United States, was at a time when the former President Donald Trump was just rising to power,” Hadhad said of Keijser’s vision. “When there was so much fear about accepting immigrants, closing the borders in the face of Muslims, spreading all these hatred speeches, that’s when we were super motivated to bring this movie of our story to life.”

Another one of their goals with the movie was to showcase the beauty and magic of their new home, as he said not many people know about how kind, friendly, welcoming and embracing the people of Nova Scotia are, especially the people of Antigonish.

“Without the community, we wouldn’t have been able to establish a company in the first place,” Hadhad said. “Hopefully Nova Scotians will feel the pride for our family to be in Nova Scotia, to be spreading this journey further and further.”

After their initial meeting in 2017, Keijser continued to carry out interviews throughout the town and by the end of 2018, Hadhad indicated the movie was given the greenlight and 2019 was a bit of a race with time in finalizing the script, securing actors and the production.

The film, which was mostly shot on location in Montreal in January 2020 and features exterior shots in Antigonish, finished filming before the COVID-19 pandemic touched down on Canadian soil.

“What I’m happy about right now, is that the movie was done before the pandemic,” Hadhad said. “We were just so blessed to have it finished, as it would have been another few years before we filmed if not done last year.”

That would have also meant re-casting one of their main roles held by the “grandfather of drama and cinema in the Middle East.”

The movie is scheduled to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 17, as a part of the Tribeca at Home online series, however it is not available outside the USA.

As for a local screening, Hadhad said he’d leave that up to Keijser’s team.

“When we were filming in January we had hoped to have a screening with thousands of Canadians in Antigonish, bring everyone together and watch them laugh, smile, and tear up watching our story,” he said. “Now that’s not going to happen this year, but hopefully we’ll have something happening next year if we have an opportunity to open up.”

While the movie is about his family, Hadhad said the storytelling in the movie has a purpose, not to tell the viewer how to think, but to give them questions to think upon.

“They’ll be asking themselves, how can they help other refugees back in refugee camps, how can they help build small businesses in their community, because this is a backbone of our economy and our society,” he said. “And how they can be good neighbours, and supporting those who have differences than us; I believe those are the key values from the movie.”