michael — 5 years ago
In October 2008, I got a call out of the blue. It was from Lalita Krishna. I had heard the name before. A long time ago, we had both worked for the same TV station. But we didn’t really know each other. A mutual friend had suggested to Lalita that she call me.
Lalita informed me that she wanted to produce a documentary on chocolate. We briefly discussed how several “commodity” documentaries had recently been produced – specifically on coffee and diamonds. Both of these looked at how the production of these goods came to us on the back of slave labour and that they are part of a large, covert and politicized industry.
A book by CBC journalist Carol Off called Bitter Chocolate had recently made the same types of connection about corruption and human-right abuses as they applied to the cocoa industry.
We quickly established that we didn’t want to take that approach.
We didn’t want to take the investigative route and necessarily point any fingers at anyone. We quickly found out that broadcasters felt the same way. They weren’t too interested in a story that demonized chocolate. The wisdom was that people were fed up with being made to feel bad about treats they deeply loved. There had to be another way to get these important messages across.
I agreed with this wisdom. So I began to map out a story treatment for what would become Semisweet: Life in Chocolate.
The idea of having four connected stories in the film was two-fold. On the one hand, I wanted to emphasize the power of chocolate – that it’s not just candy.
And so, through characters like Ron and Nadine, we are meant to learn something about the ancient healing powers of chocolate. If some people are right, it turns out that it may just be the most healthy food product in the world. Not everybody knew that.
Through Patrick Roger, we learn that – for some – chocolate becomes a powerful muse. Chocolate can actually inspire art that, in turn, can potentially inspire changes in us and the world we live in.
Through Jonathan, we learn how one man’s dream of building a progressive, socialist town around chocolate was co-opted by the burgeoning corporatization of America. That’s some heavy chocolate.
Through the African story, we learn that chocolate comes to us at the ultimate price – the blood of children.
Which leads us to the second reason for the four distinct stories – the approach is there to create an emotional buffer zone for viewers against this very dark African story. With the addition of other “lighter” stories, you’re given a short reprieve – a chance to walk away from the heavier scenes. For a brief moment, you take a deep breathe, regroup, and refresh. It’s an approach that offers both balance and distance.
But I’m also a big believer in the juxtaposition of tragic and comic. And, when it’s done right – when you’re able to capture the proper tone – this multi-narrative approach also serves to actually heighten the tragic element of the story. The power of the African story (unquestionably the heart of my film) is made more impactful by the stories placed around it.
In my opinion, there’s nothing more powerful than when something horrible happens just as you’re still laughing at a joke that someone just told. You don’t have a chance to switch emotional gears. You’re left with not really knowing how to feel. You’re left with sorting out your own conflicted emotions. It was my hope to create this off-balancing act through the four-story approach.
In the end, some may criticize the film for not delving deeper into any one story. For those, I hope the film’s website will lead them to their answers. My goal was not to be a fountain of information. Pointed, preachy information often leads to feelings of guilt and helplessness. Guilt has never moved mountains. Inspiration is the real fuel for change. My goal was to inspire.
What I hope most is that viewers see that the film isn’t actually about chocolate. It’s really about the idea of community -- and our desperate attempts to belong and be happy.