The Lebanese Burger Mafia is a breakthrough in Arab Canadian cinema

The best things in life are fried

A burger-shaped restaurant sign behind a clear sky that says “The Lebanese Burger Mafia” with a yellow arrow underneath and Arabic text underneath.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Backroad Productions

By: Omar Nsouli

Living in Calgary for most of my life, I would often go on road trips to Edmonton with my family for long weekends to get a change of scenery. Midway between both cities is Red Deer, a small rural town with many restaurants and gas stations for people to take a break from driving and fuel up their cars. One restaurant, however, always stood out to me. 

The Burger Baron was a modest burger shack off the highway with a sign presenting a small, stout, and cartoonish knight as their logo. I never paid close attention to the restaurant, though, thinking it was an average mom-and-pop shop in rural Alberta. However, I didn’t know that the little Burger Baron was a symbol of Lebanese accomplishment in Alberta until I saw The Lebanese Burger Mafia

Writer and director Omar Mouallem attempts to decode the mystery behind the chain’s trademark rights. He does so through numerous testimonies of Lebanese immigrants telling their sides of the story. The Burger Baron started off as a regular burger chain, but after it filed for bankruptcy, the chain and its intellectual property were up for grabs. The film doesn’t deal with a real mafia; it gets the name from the family hustle associated with mafia hustle culture.

As a Lebanese Canadian individual, I highly appreciated this film. I learned a lot more about Lebanese culture in rural Alberta, which is “home to one of Canada’s most concentrated Lebanese communities,” and laughed at the relatable experiences the interviewees spoke of. The film did well in capturing the nuances of Lebanese identities and effectively using animation to retell the experiences of the business owners.

The animated retellings of stories were a delight to watch. Led by animator Lee Nielsen, the animation used for the retellings is a blend of expressive 2D scenes with some 3D effects. Animation has the power to evoke distinct feelings in individuals and the film used it appropriately. Mouallen treated the harsh realities of the immigrants in a poetic way through animated sequences. This allowed for productive and healing expressions of emotions rather than using abrasive and destructive archival footage from the past. 

A statement that spoke to me was when the director’s mother explained that Lebanese individuals are very generous people but have difficulty co-operating with other individuals. Sal, a retired Burger Baron owner, also discussed how Lebanese people can’t have a person in charge of them — it’s “against their genes.” This quality comes from the numerous obstacles Lebanese people have faced in history, as being their own leader aids in their survival. These two moments, among numerous others, did an accurate job reminding Lebanese viewers of our personalities while explaining it to non-Lebanese people as well. I could never explain to my white friends why us Arabs go through comical trials and tribulations to voluntarily pay the bill at a restaurant, or why there is always trivial discord at family game nights, but this film explains these personal nuances that many Lebanese people experience.

The film also highlights the entrepreneurial spirit many Arab people carry with them. The burger “godfather” and style icon, Rudy Kemaldean, showed proof of that with his strong work ethic. He got his nickname from his love of cigars, hustler spirit, and mafia-esque fashion, though now he rocks a much more subdued look of a suit with a paisley tie and Hermès belt. By owning his own restaurant and supporting his family members from abroad, he demonstrates the strong work ethic and generosity of the Arab diaspora. 

Overall, the film was a highly enjoyable and educational experience. It dealt perfectly with what Lebanese culture in Alberta looks like while giving a bit of history about the Burger Baron chain. I highly recommend this film to anyone wanting to gain more perspective about immigrant life on the prairies or any fast-food aficionados wanting to know more about the great stories behind their favourite foods. 

The Vancouver theatrical release date of The Lebanese Burger Mafia has not yet been confirmed. Follow the movie on Instagram at @burgerbaronmovie for updates.

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