Into the world of children through Satyajit Ray’s eyes

His brilliance lies in the way he portrayed and treated children in his films and stories. Through his films, he successfully captured a child’s thoughts and sensitivities, all the while addressing social and political issues.

Based on a short story by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, “Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne”, was the first fantasy-musical film in Bengali. With this film, Ray introduced children to a fantastical world in 1969. The film tells a powerful story about good and evil, but it is also a light and funny story for children.

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The film’s memorable six-minute dance sequence by a group of ghosts, ‘Bhooter Nach’, made history by using special effects at a time when it was unheard of in Indian cinema. It was shot using a stop-motion effect in combination with a watery reel. As the dance appealed hugely to children, it also represented class dynamics in Bengal.

“Hirak Rajar Deshe”, the sequel to “Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne”, came out in 1980. It was another hit film filled with coded messages, musical elements, inspirational dialogues and quirky scenes, making it a favourite among both children and adults.

In Ray’s less popular short film, “Two”, released in 1964, the maestro painted a clear picture of class division in our society, highlighting the disparity between the rich and poor. The 12-minute film with no dialogues only features two children playing with their toys. A poor child’s sense of defeat and a rich child’s sense of pride was captured perfectly in the film, sending a profound message for viewers.

The portrayal of children in Ray’s film captured the simple aspects of a child’s life, as well as children’s capacity to understand bits and pieces of a grown-up’s world. In “Pather Panchali”, the playful bond between Apu-Durga, their timeless adventures, and Apu-Durga’s iconic train scene, running through a white Kaash flower field portrays ordinary children’s lives in rural Bengal.

Be it the naive little boy in the short film, “Pikoo”, the innocent grandson who asks about what ‘Dui Number’ money is, in “Shakha Proshakha”, the quiet boy in “Agantuk”, the aspiring detective ‘Captain Spark’ in “Joi Baba Felunath” or the enchanting Mukul in “Sonar Kella”, children can relate to these characters in Ray’s work easily. Ray nurtured each and every character through his powerful imagination and sensibilities.

Inspired by his father Sukumar Ray and grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Ray explored the world of children through literature as well. He successfully revived “Sandesh”, the children’s magazine his grandfather founded, and worked as an editor and writer till his death.

Ray’s contribution to children’s literature includes 21 novels and 11 short story compilations, most of them translated into many languages across the world. Ray was also a gifted artist and graphic designer, who illustrated several books as “Pagla Dashu” and “Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-Lo” authored by his father, among many others.

In his writings for children, he followed the belief that children are much more imaginative than older readers. Even with classic adventure stories of the clever detective Feluda, Ray narrates the stories through teenager Topshe, someone children can relate to more than the protagonist Feluda.

Through Professor Shanku’s brilliant science innovations and adventures, Phatik Chand’s unconventional love for the circus, Tarini Khuro’s never-ending collection of stories, Ray delved deep into children psychology, entertaining and teaching important life lessons to audiences across generations.

Even 29 years after his death, Ray’s creations remain relevant and relatable, making him a true legend in the world of films and literature. On the master storyteller’s birth centenary, we honour him with his own words — Maharaja Tomare Selam.


Oscars 2021: The most diverse yet

Even though the 2021 Oscars were arranged in the midst of a pandemic, it had its silver linings. The ceremony marked a moment of real change, when it came to celebrating diversity. This year saw the first Asian-American best actor nominee (Steven Yeun for “Minari”), two women nominated for best director for the first time (Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland”; Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman”), and the first Muslim best actor nominee (Riz Ahmed for “Sound of Metal”). Nearly half the top acting nominations went to people of colour. 

Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” a wistful film about itinerant lives on open roads across the American West, won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. China-born Zhao became the first woman of colour to win Best Director, and a historically diverse group of winners took home awards.

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The Academy Awards took steps to make changes, in response to the recent shamings of #OscarsSoWhite. They included more people of colour, women, and young filmmakers in their membership criteria. This year, consequently, was exceptional in terms of diversity and representation.

That being said, there is a significant relationship between the two phenomena — Covid-19 and diversity.

The March 2020 shutdown and the ongoing closure of cinema theatres led studios to withdraw big films such as “Dune”, “West Side Story”, “The French Dispatch”, and “In the Heights”. This made the way for smaller films by  newcomers and lesser-known directors through “Sound of Metal”, “Nomadland”, “The Father”, “Minari”, and “Promising Young Woman”. The closure of cinema theatres also opened up opportunities for streaming platforms. Netflix’s “Mank” garnered the most Oscar nominations this year (10). Netflix is also behind “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, which received 11 more nominations between them.

Voters of the Oscars are known to be susceptible to the “buzz”  or influence, which essentially comes down to a combination of industry pressure, box-office success, and simply following the herd. Last year, through an amazing combination of momentum, merit, and marketing, “Parasite” took home the Best Picture trophy — which highlights an underdog success story. This year, it appears that free from any “buzz”, the voters had the space to make up their own minds.

Decisions by the Academy Awards may be changing Hollywood from within, but cruelly, this year’s recognised films are likely to miss out on commercial success. With cinema theatres shut, we will have to find out on the internet which streaming platform is showing what, and for how much.


Fakir Alamgir reflects on the significance of May Day

Ekushey Padak awardee and Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra artiste Fakir Alamgir is one of the leading exponents of Gono Sangeet — the songs of the masses, in Bangladesh. Infusing modernism with traditional songs, his recognition has stretched far and beyond. He has always been a strong voice for the working-class commoners in the country. On the occasion of May Day 2021, the singer shared a few thoughts with The Daily Star.

What does May Day mean to you?

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May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is celebrated with a pledge to establish the rights of workers across the globe. This day holds paramount significance for the working class. The day is celebrated for establishing the right to work for eight-hour per day, which was an important milestone for the labour movement. Every year, the importance of this day is getting more and more recognition.

What was the history behind May Day?

May 1 was chosen to be International Workers’ Day to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. On May 1, 1886, there was a general strike for the eight-hour workday. On May 4, the police acted to disperse a public assembly in support of the strike by firing on the workers. The event led to the deaths of thirty-eight civilians with hundreds of workers injured. Hundreds of labour leaders and sympathizers were later rounded-up and four were executed by hanging, after a trial that was seen as a miscarriage of justice.

The workers’ sacrifice was later recognised and the government accepted their demands afterward. Workers had to sacrifice their lives to establish their rights and emerged victorious that day.

This is the second consecutive May Day celebrated amid a pandemic. What are your thoughts regarding this?

During the pandemic, May Day celebrations have been different, as thousands are getting affected by the virus and many of them dying. May Day is about celebrating the working class, but unfortunately, due to nature’s much dismay, they are forced to refrain from celebrating. We must adhere to the health and safety protocols and avoid social gatherings. Yet, May Day is here and I welcome this day with utmost gratitude.

Are the workers still deprived of their rights?

It is very unfortunate, yet it is true that workers across the globe are still deprived of their basic rights. Child labour is still a threat in developing worlds. Women labourers are yet to gain equal payment opportunities.

 In our country, during the Rana Plaza tragedy, thousands of workers gave their life and yet the survivors are deprived of their rights today. Overall, workers and labourers are still deprived in every sphere.

Many of your popular songs are based on May Day. Can you mention some of them?

My personal favourites are “Naam Tar Chhilo Henry”, “1886 Shaler Pohela May Chicago”, “Duniyar Mojdur Bhai Shob” and “Buk Bedhe Lorte Hobe” among others. All of these songs are widely popular and appreciated by everyone.

Over the years, I have written and composed a wide array of songs on May Day and I have performed them for the masses, both at home and abroad.

Why did you choose to pursue the genre of Gono Sangeet?

Gono Sangeet is particularly inspired by the journey of labourers. I believe that the daily workers are our biggest asset, as they form the foundation of our economy. In addition, be it a revival of our human rights to our language in 1952, the Liberation War in 1971, or the rebellion in 1990 — no revolution is complete without Gono Sangeet. It speaks for the masses and is the key to positive reformation in society. Thus, I treasure this genre of music as an asset and love it with all my heart.

Translated by Rasheek Tabassum Mondira


‘Satyajit Ray Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Cinema’ introduced

India has instituted the ‘Satyajit Ray Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Cinema’ to be given at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) every year, starting from this year, to mark Ray’s birth centenary celebrations. The award will consist of a cash prize of Rs 10 lakh, a certificate, shawl, along with a silver peacock medal and a scroll. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will organise year-long centenary celebrations for Ray, starting from May 2, in India and abroad.

As part of the celebrations, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata are planning a series of activities in collaboration with other ministries, including the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Culture. However, in view of the pandemic, the celebrations will be held in a hybrid mode, with both digital and in-person arrangements.

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The Indian Directorate of Film Festivals, Films Division and Ministry of External Affairs will be organising Satyajit Ray film festivals in India and abroad, where films and documentaries by and on Ray will be showcased. A special retrospective and screening of Ray’s films is being planned at the 74th Cannes Film Festival this summer.

A special retrospective of Ray’s films will be organized at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) this year and it will later be travelling to prominent international and national film festivals.

India’s Films Division will be creating a dedicated Satyajit Ray section at the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai. This section would host memorabilia from Ray’s life in both physical and interactive digital versions, including the shots from his films and interviews.

National Film Archives of India (NFAI) will do restoration and digitisation of all the available films and publicity materials of Ray. NFDC will organise a film festival on its OTT platform, and cinema theatres of India, showcasing five of the maestro’s films.

Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata will be unveiling a statue of the director at their campus. To promote understanding of the filmmaker’s genius, a course on his work will be taught at the institute. A package of Ray’s works for children that can be given to schools is also being developed.


Big money is buying up big songs. Lots of them

Some of the best-known names in music are selling the rights to their entire catalogues of songs, netting tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, why so many artists are cashing in now, and why investors are betting billions on music.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers perform at Roskilde Festival in Denmark, 2016. (REUTERS)

Front Burner20:58Big money is buying up big songs. Lots of them

The names include Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Shakira.

Over the last year, dozens of music’s biggest artists have cashed in the rights to their entire catalogues of songs, netting tens or hundred of millions of dollars.

This week, the Red Hot Chili Peppers became the latest, landing a reported $140 million US for the publishing rights to every song they’ve ever written. 

Today on Front Burner, New York Times music industry reporter Ben Sisario explains why so many artists are selling off now, and why investors are betting billions on music.

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New Russian film on Chornobyl nuclear disaster skips the coverup, focuses on heroes

Russia has finally released its own film treatment of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, a testament to the heroic deeds by those sent to ground zero during the catastrophe. But for many who were there in 1986 and risked their lives, the film triggers emotions they’d rather forget and unanswered questions 35 years later.

A man lights a candle at a memorial dedicated to firefighters and workers who died after the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, in Slavutych, Ukraine, on April 26, the 35th anniversary of the catastrophe. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

When Russian movie producers decided to give the Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe the feature-film treatment, they looked to former firefighter Nikolai Chebushev for inspiration.

“I had to prepare the personnel — and they were absolutely unprepared,” he recalled about being summoned to the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident on April 26, 1986, and ordered to put out the fire at the No. 4 reactor.

By the time Chebushev got to the plant, he said, the fire trucks at the site — which had been pulled in from all over Ukraine and other parts of what was then the Soviet Union — were already covered in radioactive debris.

Now 71, Chebushev still lives in Kurchatov, Russia, his home at the time of the explosion, located about 1,000 kilometres east of Chornobyl. He survived the disaster but suffered from radiation poisoning.

The Russian town also served as a stand-in for Chornobyl during production of the movie, as it contains a still-functioning nuclear power plant with several reactors identical to the one that exploded 35 years ago. Filming took place at a reactor that was never completed and has been abandoned ever since the disaster.

A scene from the new Russian-made movie Chernobyl: Abyss. The movie is now playing in Russian cinemas after an extended production schedule prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Non-Stop Production)

“No one understood the layout of the plant. It would have been a death sentence for them,” said Chebushev, who headed up Kurchatov’s fire brigade — making him familiar with the layout of the Chornobyl plant.

His fictionalized character in the movie is played by Russian leading man Danila Kozlovsky, who also directed the new feature film, Chernobyl: Abyss.

Movie called a ‘fantasy’ by firefighter at scene

The movie, whose original title in Russian translates as When the Storks Fell, is now playing in Russian cinemas after an elongated production schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first part of the movie is a love story involving Alexey, played by Kozlovsky, and an old girlfriend, played by Oksana Akinshina, who are struggling to reconnect after years of estrangement. Then the reactor explodes, throwing their lives into disarray and forcing Alexey to make a life-or-death decision.

He teams up with an engineer and a military diver on a near-suicide mission to drain water from a reservoir under the flooded reactor in a bid to avert a catastrophic explosion.

Chebushev discussed being a consultant on the film but said he declined because the producers weren’t being historically accurate about the work of the clean-up teams.

Nikolai Chebushev was head of the fire brigade at the Kurchatov nuclear plant and was tasked with putting out fires at its devastated sister plant in Chornobyl, 1,000 kilometres away, in April 1986. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

In particular, he said, a scene where the trio of heroes dive into radioactive water and then hold their breath and swim under the reactor never happened. Instead, the men waded through water to get to the valves that had to be opened, he said.

Chebushev and other clean-up workers — known as liquidators — were recently given a private screening and met Kozlovsky and other cast members.

But he said he came away from the experience unsettled.

“I had to laugh,” Chebushev told CBC News in an interview. “In the film, Danila [Kozlovsky] was evacuated to Switzerland for treatment — but for me, well, they organized a flight to Kursk (Russia).” 

The Kursk nuclear power plant, next to the village of Kurchatov, Russia, was used in the filming of the movie Chernobyl: Abyss. Many residents were offered bit parts in the movie. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

He called the production a “fantasy” that downplayed the misconduct and lies that Soviet authorities told in an effort to conceal the extent of the disaster.

Chebushev said people didn’t think of themselves as heroes at the time because they had no idea what they were being asked to do.

“This is terrifying when people have no idea what they came for. The people they sent to deal with it got acute radiation sickness, and within half a year [many] were dead,” he said.

WATCH | The trailer for Chernobyl: Abyss:

Disagreement on casualty toll

The official Soviet death count of 30 fatalities vastly understates the thousands who died in the months and years that followed from cancer or other forms of radiation, according to subsequent United Nations reports. To this day, there is little agreement on the true casualty toll.

The release of the Russian movie comes two years after HBO’s critically acclaimed miniseries Chernobyl, which focused on the attempts of Soviet authorities to take safety shortcuts and later hide the extent of the contamination from the disaster.

The HBO treatment was lauded for its realistic portrayal of Soviet society and its painstaking re-creation of the minute details of its characters’ lives — although some Kremlin-connected watchers complained of anti-Russian overtones in the production and others, including prominent Russian-American journalist and Putin critic Masha Gessen, criticized it for oversimplifying the events.

Shortly after the HBO series debuted, famed Russian producer Alexander Rodnyansky announced that his company, Non-Stop Production, had already been working on a Russian version of a film treatment of the Chornobyl disaster for several years — but with a different focus.

Alexander Rodnyansky produced the movie about the disaster. He said his film focuses on the ordinary people who were asked to do extraordinary things, rather than the ‘ineffective’ Soviet system. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

“We definitely know what happened in 1986 — every single Soviet citizen knew that the reason for the disaster was the Soviet system. It was ineffective,” Rodnyansky told CBC News in a recent interview at the Oktyabr Cinema in Moscow, on the night his film premiered.

Instead, he said, his movie is about ordinary people who were asked to do extraordinary things.

“Our movie works very well along with the HBO series, because these are the different aspects of what happened,” he said. “Our story tells about how the normal people — the hostages of this [Soviet] machine — find themselves in a position to stop the disaster.”

But several of the clean-up workers who spoke to CBC News said they remain haunted by the experience and that most Russians don’t appreciate how the coverup doomed so many of the liquidators to early deaths.

‘I wake up at night and I can’t forget Chornobyl’

In that sense, says Nikolai Tarakanov, the movie was a missed opportunity.

“This movie doesn’t teach us anything,” said Tarakanov, a former Soviet general who was among the highest-ranking people on the ground at Chornobyl in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Former Soviet general Nikolai Tarakanov at his home in Moscow. He was one of the highest-ranking people on the ground in the aftermath of the Chornobyl explosion 35 years ago. (Alexey Sergeev/CBC News)

In the HBO production, his character — portrayed by British actor Ralph Ineson — is shown ordering workers into extremely contaminated parts of the destroyed power plant.

“I wake up at night, and I can’t forget Chornobyl,” Tarakanov told CBC News in an emotional interview at his Moscow apartment.

“I had to tell them: ‘There is a decree of the Ministry of Defence which orders the removal of radioactive fuel. I will give you a moment to think about it.'”

Tarakanov, 87, came close to tears as he remembered the soldiers who are no longer alive.

Tarakanov, left, speaks to other Soviet officials about the cleanup of the nuclear power plant in Chornobyl in 1986. (Submitted by Nikolai Tarakanov)

“No soldier refused during the 20 days of work — they removed 10 tonnes of radioactive fuel! Ten tonnes!”

More than two decades after the explosion, he said, Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the pensions of liquidators, a move he said has left him “ashamed.”

Senior nuclear officials have mixed feelings

Many residents in Kurchatov were offered bit parts in the Chornobyl movie, including 24-year-old Natalia Krulova, who works as a sales engineer at the town’s nuclear plant.

She told CBC News she found the movie enjoyable but wondered if it was too politically sensitive in Russia to make a film that casts authority figures in a bad light.

“The film didn’t show like … the HBO film that when the tragedy happened, they tried to cover it up,”  she said.

“I think they are afraid … to talk about what they did not talk about before.”

WATCH | Remembering the Chornobyl disaster 25 years later:

Chernobyl survivor Vasyl Kawatsruk shares his experience on the 25th anniversary of the nuclear disaster 5:53

Perhaps not surprisingly, senior leaders at Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, which operates the nine Chornobyl-style reactors in the country, also had mixed feelings about the final on-screen product.

“I don’t like disaster movies, in general,” said chief engineer Alexander Uvakin, who oversees the Kursk nuclear power plant in Kurchatov.

“We use the Chornobyl example when we are training our workers — that we have to show a real respect for the nuclear atom we work with and take it seriously. Because if not, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

Rodnyansky, the movie’s producer, said most of the feedback he’s received has been overwhelmingly positive, including from those who were at Chornobyl 35 years ago.

The Russian-made film stars Danila Kozlovsky, who also directed the film, and Oksana Akinshina. (Non-Stop Production)

“This is a time machine for them,” he said. “They were really grateful to the [movie makers] who provided them with a huge deal of respect.

“This is our attempt, our try, to say thank you to those people.”


Kevin Spacey accuser must reveal his identity, judge rules

A man accusing Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey of sexually abusing him in the 1980s when he was 14 cannot proceed anonymously in court, a judge ruled Monday.

Actor Kevin Spacey leaves court after being arraigned on sexual assault charges on Jan. 7, 2019 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. A man accusing Spacey of sexually abusing him in the 1980s when he was 14 cannot proceed anonymously in court, a judge ruled Monday. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

A man accusing Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey of sexually abusing him in the 1980s when he was 14 cannot proceed anonymously in court, a judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in Manhattan refused to let the man proceed only as “C.D.” in a lawsuit filed in September in New York state court and later moved to federal court.

The man had met Spacey in the actor’s suburban New York acting class before the alleged abuse, according to the lawsuit which seeks over $40 million US in damages.

Kaplan said C.D.’s privacy interest does not outweigh the presumption of open judicial proceedings and the prejudice to Spacey’s defense that would occur if he could proceed anonymously. Individuals with information that might support Spacey also would not know to come forward, the judge added.

C.D. since the 1990s had spoken to an unknown number of people about his claims against Spacey and had apparently cooperated for a New York magazine article that appeared on an online website, “Vulture,” in November 2017, Kaplan said.

He said “the evidence suggests that C.D. knowingly and repeatedly took the risk that any of these individuals at one point or another would reveal his true identity in a manner that would bring that identity to wide public attention.”

Kaplan noted that C.D. also recruited for the lawsuit his co-plaintiff, Anthony Rapp, who has appeared in Rent on Broadway and in Star Trek: Discovery on television. The lawsuit said the older actor made a sexual advance to a teenage Rapp at a 1980s party.

When Rapp first spoke publicly of his claim in 2017, others went public too and Spacey’s then-celebrated career abruptly halted. At the time, Spacey issued a statement saying he didn’t remember the encounter but apologized.

Accuser given 10 days to reveal identity

The judge said claims by C.D.’s lawyers that using their client’s name would trigger post traumatic stress disorder and the anxiety, nightmares and depression that come with it is a consequence that likely cannot be prevented as the case proceeds and C.D. is ultimately forced to testify in public.

He gave lawyers 10 days to reveal C.D.’s name if he continued to make the claims.

In an early March letter to the judge, lawyer Peter Saghir said C.D. feels “extreme anxiety and psychological distress at even the thought of being required to proceed publicly” and had reluctantly decided to drop his claims if Kaplan ordered him to proceed publicly.

Saghir and other lawyers for C.D. did not return requests for comment Monday. Neither did lawyers for Spacey, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in American Beauty, a 1999 film in which he played a frustrated suburban father who lusts after his daughter’s best friend.

If C.D. drops his claims, he would not be the first to do so. Two years ago, a man who said Spacey groped him in a Nantucket bar in 2016 dropped his lawsuit.

Meanwhile, investigators in England have not yet said whether they will bring criminal charges against Spacey in connection with accusations made against him there for events alleged to have occurred from 1996 to 2013.


Escher art exhibit premieres at Barcelona museum

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Black Screen Office plans nationwide consultation on underrepresented stories

The newly formed Black Screen Office says consultations begin this month on efforts to build a “best practices” guide for telling the stories of underrepresented communities.

Canada’s Black Screen Office says it is launching a ‘best practices’ guide for telling stories from underrepresented communities. Consultations on that guide begin this month. (Alvaro Barrientos/The Associated Press)

The newly formed Black Screen Office says consultations begin this month on efforts to build a “best practices” guide for telling the stories of underrepresented communities.

The office says “Being Seen: A Directive for Authentic and Inclusive Content” will seek national input on the representation of “Black, people of colour, LGBTQ2+ and persons with disabilities” in film and television.

The goal is to understand how underrepresented communities “want to be seen and represented and then provide a set of directives to the industry.”

Interviews will be conducted through virtual focus groups and one-on-one conversations in English and French through September. Participants will be focused on industry representatives and members of the general public who belong to underrepresented communities.

The Black Screen Office was formed last year with a $100,000 pledge from Telefilm Canada, and support from the Bell Fund, as part of a plan to address systemic racism in Canada’s film industry.

The office says the “Being Seen” consultation will offer directives to Canadian film and TV creators on ways to “work with culturally sensitive content, identify when a story is theirs to tell and create content that avoids stereotypes.”

The work will be guided by lead researcher Kelly Lynne Ashton, along with a team of researchers and interns.


Peace by Chocolate film to debut at NYC’s Tribeca Film Festival

The movie based on the real-life story of the family who fled Syria and founded a growing chocolate company in Nova Scotia is making its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City this summer.

Ayham Abou Ammar (left), the late Hatem Ali (centre), and Yara Sabri (left) portray Tareq, Assam, and Shahnaz Hadhad in the upcoming film Peace by Chocolate. (ChicArt Public Relations)

The movie based on the real-life story of the family who fled Syria and founded a chocolate company in Nova Scotia will make its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

“[It’s] absolutely exciting, I’ve been dreaming about the movie since it was filmed,” said Tareq Hadhad, founder of Peace By Chocolate.

No one in Hadhad’s family has seen the finished movie yet, though they were involved in consultations throughout the pre-production process, which started in 2017. The film, also titled Peace by Chocolate, is being produced by Magnetic North.

“[They] really put their hearts and soul into making it a very uplifting movie that will hopefully inspire Canadians and the world,” Hadhad said.

Filmmaker Johnathan Keijser is originally from Halifax, but has been based in Los Angeles for almost 10 years. (Allison Chu)

Filmmaker Jonathan Keijser, who was born in Halifax but is now based in Los Angeles, said he “couldn’t be happier” the film will debut at Tribeca — a major international film festival. 

“As a storyteller and filmmaker, you want to have the most amount of people see your story. Especially this really important Canadian story,” he said.

It’s important for a festival to be the right fit for the film, Keijser said, adding the team at Tribeca embraced the story and is “making sure it’s a priority to share with everybody.”

Hadhad’s father, Assam Hadhad, was a chocolate maker in Damascus for two decades, but he and his family fled the country when Syria was ravaged by war.

Ayham Abou Ammar (left) portrays Tareq Hadhad in the film, while the late Hatem Ali (right) portray’s Tareq’s father, Assam. (ChicArt Public Relations)

They settled in Antigonish in 2016 and built a social enterprise — Peace By Chocolate — which sells products across the country. The chocolatiers opened a flagship store in Halifax this year.

“All of our family members cannot wait to see themselves on the big screen [played] by other actors,” Hadhad said, especially because many of them are popular Middle Eastern actors he and his siblings used to watch when they were growing up.

His father’s character is being portrayed by Hatem Ali, a legendary Syrian actor and director who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in December 2020. Hadhad said he feels “so blessed and privileged” to have Ali in the film — his last acting role.

Hadhad said he feels ‘so blessed and privileged’ Ali portrayed his father, Assam, in the film. (Allison Chu)

Ultimately, the Hadhad family’s story is one of peace and resilience. He hopes the film sheds light on the challenges his family faced when they were forced to leave their home country and start over in a new place. Hadhad said he also hopes the film will make people reflect on how lucky they are to live in Canada.

“In the war, we were forced to leave our homes, while in the pandemic we’re asked to stay in our homes,” he said.

Release delayed by pandemic

Hadhad said they hoped the film would have been released in the fall of 2020, but that was delayed because of the pandemic.

Thankfully, the filming, which mostly took place in Montreal in January 2020, wrapped before the pandemic hit. Exterior shots were also filmed in Antigonish.

“We were so lucky at that time, when COVID-19 was something very far away from us … no one really knew it would be just only four weeks after we finished filming that everything would shut down,” Hadhad said.

The film will premiere in June at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. (Abdul Malik)

The Tribeca Film Festival kicks off on June 9 in New York City. Although film festivals look a little different these days, Keijser said a hybrid in-person and online model can mean increased numbers and more exposure for the film compared to an in-person-only event.

There’s no public release date yet, but Keijser is hoping for sometime in the fall.

Hadhad said he’s still working with the production team to figure out how he and his family can catch the premiere virtually.

“The pandemic shattered our dreams to be in-person launching the movie with our community … but I’m so glad we were able to finish it and I hope this movie is going to change a lot of minds and uplift others, because our story is all about hope towards a bright future.”