I was attending the recent launch for the documentary Semisweet at the Royal Cinema in Toronto’s Little Italy.
I had already watched the film twice at home and was telling its producer Lalita Krishna before the screening how its poignant ending had made me cry. “That’s the sign of a good film,” she replied softly. And I agree.
It happened to me some years ago as the lovely movie Big Night finished with a touching scene between the two restaurateur brothers. Likewise for my experience at the movies last week when, near its end, the magnificent Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar about a Montreal schoolteacher and his young students took an unexpectedly tear-jerking turn.
In the spirit of keeping the last scene of Semisweet a secret – and secrets are not my forte – let’s just say that it is bittersweet and beautiful beyond belief. So is the entire film which, like any great work of cinema, transports us by means of stunning cinematography, evocative music and, most important, a carefully crafted tale.
Moments of humour, peculiarity, surprise, sadness, pain and human warmth pepper this real story of how chocolate is made. In particular, it shows the brutality of child labour on the cocoa plantations of Côte d’Ivoire.
Here, children are lured with promises of money from their homes in the poor neighbouring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso.
Brilliant director Michael Allcock, who spoke with eloquence and humility at the launch, did an amazing job of weaving together four disparate elements to tell what is a sadly under-publicized dark story.
I’ve heard the moniker “earth muffins” used to describe raw foodists Rob and Nadine, a nutty New Age couple living in rural splendour on the outskirts of Algonquin Park and making their ultra-pure brand of organic chocolate called Living Libations. The healing properties of their chocolate, which they promote on quirky YouTube videos, have attracted celebs like Woody Harrelson, Sting and Alanis Morisette.
They share the screen with the bizarre, Disney-like town of Hershey, the Pennsylvania burg peddled as “The Sweetest Place on Earth.” A strange young man called Jonathan who lives there is shown working at the Hershey Hotel and waxing eloquent about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. A female publicist with a pasted-on grin gives new meaning to the word “mouthpiece.”
Then there’s talented Parisian pastry chef Patrick Roger who loves fast cars and all things chocolate. He makes giant sculptures out of it and espouses ecology and the fair trade stuff.
Last, interwoven with the three aforementioned themes, are several young Africans. We see Noufou and Mamoutou toiling amid pesticides and dangerous tools in the Côte d’Ivoire cocoa fields. Meanwhile, two beautiful girls Nia and Awa tell how they escaped upon arrival in that country after being saved by some adults from what is, for many children, a deadly fate.
The kooky Canadian couple, the surreal scenes at Hershey headquarters and the artistry of a top French chocolatier serve to highlight the film’s message: Chocolate may be a divine confection but how it is made is another story.
And have a handkerchief ready for that bittersweet finale.
By the way, I was more prepared than some for the above poignant moment having read the terrific 2006 book by CBC radio’s Carol Off: “Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet.” Recommended reading on this topic.
Semisweet will be aired on TVO on Wednesday June 6 at 9 pm and 12 am. Also on Thursday June 7 at 7 pm and 9 pm; Sunday June 10 at 11 pm.
And there’s the Choco-locate app, the first iPhone app and mobile website devoted to chocolate. Here, chocolate fans can find sources and share their findings through a store directory, recipe challenges, meetups and tastings.