Somewhere, a photo exists of my five-year-old self standing before a ravaged chocolate cake. My brother had just returned home after competing in the 1985 Hershey Track and Field Championship, and my mother arranged for a thematically-appropriate confectionery gift. I felt deep shame as my family walked through the front door and discovered that I had already cut the first slice (and eaten most of the frosting). However, I don’t recall anyone being angry; they knew that I wasn’t myself. My forgiving family understood the power of chocolate, a concept that filmmaker Tanya Chuturkova explores in her wonderful 2021 documentary Chocolate Road.
Chocolate Road focuses on three chocolatiers — Maribel Lieberman, Susumu Koyama and Mikkel Friis-Holm — who discuss the specifics of their work and the overall production chain. An early expositional scene explains the difference between “bulk” and “craft” chocolate, while a follow-up sequence details the history of cacao beans in the Americas, and how the Spaniards stole Mayan goods and introduced chocolate to Europe. Lieberman (the founder of MarieBelle), speaks about her objective to educate the world about her native Honduras; Friis-Holm breaks down the logistics of his eponymous Denmark operation; Koyama of Patissier es Koyama muses about fusing “the artistic” with “the dramatic.”
Chocolate Road succeeds with its visual storytelling. For every talking head commentary, there’s a field worker cracking a colorful cacao pod. Subjects speak about their passion, but it’s their eyes that communicate a deeper truth in the fields of Central and South America. This is a documentary that doesn’t glamorize the artisan chocolate distribution industry but rather educates viewers about the literal rot — the “Witches’ Broom” — that can poison the entire cacao process. It’s one thing to hear about the production logistics — on a podcast, for example — but it’s something entirely different to witness the physical labor and the science of it all.
Additionally, Chuturkova incorporates a playful element — such as an animated Mayan leader embracing the aphrodisiac qualities of a cacao drink — while connecting the central themes to modern realities (climate change, technology, worker apathy) that could seriously affect the industry moving forward. Many of Friis-Holm’s scenes capture the magic of the final result, but the majority of his screen time underlines the correlation between cacao education and a high-quality chocolate product.
I’ll never be the same after watching Chocolate Road. No longer will I eat a bonbon without seeing a massive cacao plant. I won’t be able to watch Chocolat without thinking about Central American cacao plant clones. That’s a good thing; it adds to the experience. A chocolate gift will no longer be just a gift; it will be prepared and delivered with some extra emotional weight.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.