Semisweet opens with a black screen and a whistle-accented chugging. Right from the get-go, the film’s framework is established; the viewer is enlisted to help tell the story, to use imagination to fill in the blanks.
Director Michael Allcock’s film is not actually about chocolate; it’s about people: four fascinating stories connected to chocolate. “Things are boring,” Allcock told me. “And chocolate is a thing. What interests me are people. And this film is about them.”
I asked Allcock how he chose these stories, agreeing with him that part of the film’s magic emerges from how the four narratives balance one another. Crediting editor, Dan Hawkes for the balance, Allcock revealed that originally the film had three stories and that a fourth was added only as a back-up. But in the end, all four stories proved captivating.
Allcock may be unwilling to provide answers, and he may eschew emotionally manipulative conventions, but he tells a good story, juxtaposing shots to great effect.
The film opens with dark and light. Then, Allcock juxtaposes speed with stillness when he follows a hand-held camera point of view shot in the French chocolatier’s two-seater car accelerating down a narrow Parisian street, horn blaring, with a shot of a puff of snow on a still branch in wintery Haliburton.
Allcock follows heaven with earth as when the shot of a quiet contemplation of the ethereal with raw food enthusiast Ron looking through a telescope and remarking how the shape of a chocolate pod resembles that of a spaceship is followed by a shot of a basket of fish unceremoniously dumped onto terra firma in a market in Burkina Faso, and then a shot of the unshod feet of cacao labourers walking on the powdery, sun scorched ground. Even sound gets the juxtaposition treatment as when Allcock contrasts an amusement park soundtrack complete with Hershey Park marching band in full tilt with the sound of a sled being pulled on the snow-blanketed surface of a frozen lake.
Sometimes Semisweet’s irony makes you shake your head in wonder. A closeup of Jonathan fondly handling each of his Hershey town miniatures is contrasted with the slogan of his poster which we glimpse in passing: “Rage Against the Machine” it reads. Irony is not lost on the young girls, Nia and Awa, lured to travel to the Ivory Coast to work the cacao plantations, who plaintively explain: “someone promised us a better life. And for that, we almost lost ours.”
Only once is the silence of the narrative camera pierced by a question from behind the lens. It happens in Paris, as we watch French chocolatier Patrick Roger sculpting his gorilla in a bid to draw attention to the vulnerability of the rain forests in Borneo chopped down to make way for cacao plantations. Prompted by what he called the giant elephant in the room, Allcock couldn’t resist. In the editing suite, he thought about cutting his question, but Patrick’s response proved too good to waste.
“I think that audiences are much more sophisticated than they are often given credit for.” Allcock said. "I didn’t want this film to be preachy; I wanted people to make up their own minds.”
From its inception, Semisweet was envisioned as a triple media platform project: film, app and website.
The film’s app platform, Choco-Locate, helped build the audience for the June 6th TV Ontario television première. Producer Lalita Krishna, herself an award-winning documentary film director, explains the motivation behind the three-pronged approach. “When I had made documentaries on AIDS or on child labour, I always had people asking me afterwards: “What can I do? How can I help?” So, this time I started off from the beginning knowing that I wanted to make a film about child labour in chocolate and knowing that I wanted to have an easy way for people to get involved.
Choco-Locate, the mobile phone app developed in tandem with the film, helps you find the nearest chocolate. “I got the idea when traveling in Washington.” Krishna said. "I wanted to get some good quality chocolate, and it was hard to find. I had to ask a lot of people.” Interestingly, the chocolate to which this app points is not necessarily child-labour free. When I asked Krishna about that, she said, “We wanted people to make their own decisions. We want to let people decide what their priorities are. We were also aware that third party certification is not affordable for every producer.” The app is free for producers to list on, and free for users to download.
Krishna elected to find a director for this project partly because she wanted to focus her attention on the development of all three platforms. “I wanted someone else to take care of the direction. And frankly, I think that Michael made a better film than I would have made.”
In addition to TVO, the film’s backers include the Bell Fund and the Canada Media Fund.
Allcock and Krishna are already at work on their next project: a sort of sequel to Semisweet. But this time the film will be a chocolate travelogue.
Semisweet ends as it begins: in the dark and with questions. We see a time-lapsed shot of the sun sinking in Burkina Faso followed by night shots of each of the other locations. The final shot is a close-up of the moon: food of the gods? a plea for perspective?
I left the film wanting more. While I appreciated Allcock’s Brechtian call for critical detachment, I nevertheless developed curiosity, if not emotional attachment, for the characters. What happened to Jonathan when the chocolate factory closed its doors forever? What happened with the chocolate in space program? How does third party verification of fair trade take place? Did the gorilla melt?
Allcock is happy I wanted more. In his mind, it’s solid evidence that he did a good job. “Too many documentaries feel ten minutes too long. We could have made this film longer, but it felt right at this length.”
(This review was first published on the Alimentary Initiatives blog on Nov. 21.)
The film will be screened in Amsterdam for the Food Film Fest and will be aired TVO Tuesday December 11 at 7 pm.