The Last Baron documentary looks at Edmonton fast food royalty’s legacy

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Omar Mouallem has made a documentary about the Burger Baron restaurant chain.
Omar Mouallem has made a documentary about the Burger Baron restaurant chain. PHOTO BY GREG SOUTHAM /Postmedia

Every filmmaker has their passion project.

For Orson Welles it was Don Quixote, while Guillermo del Toro has been trying to make an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness for decades now. All respectable projects to chase down, but Omar Mouallem might have the coolest idea for a documentary ever, especially if you live in Alberta.

“I’ve been burning to make a movie about Burger Baron since I first read about it in 2013,” says Mouallem, writer, director, and co-producer of The Last Baron, which is scheduled for viewing Sept. 17 on CBC Gem.

Instead, Mouallem wrote about it himself in a long, humorous article that same year called Will the Real Burger Baron Please Stand Up, for Swerve Magazine in Calgary. In it he attempted to untangle the history of the popular, Alberta-based fast food chain that was actually not a chain. It’s a colourful piece, zeroing in on characters like Rudy Kemaldean, who began opening Burger Barons in 1964, his brother Sal, and the McDonnell family, Irish-Americans indignant at how they’d been left out of the restaurant history despite opening the originals in 1957 as part of the explosion of drive through operations.

There were questions of franchise rights, family squabbles amongst the Lebanese diaspora that owned and operated the restaurants, oddly different logos and signs, and a mushroom burger that still commands loyalty from fans far and wide. Confused yet? This is barely scratching the surface, as Mouallem’s father opened his own Burger Baron back in 1987, and the young writer-to-be was among those who lived for the legendary burger. When Mouallem wrote the article there were somewhere around 30 Burger Barons restaurants remaining in Alberta. A few of them have gone under since, though Edmonton leads the pack with four.

“I was just wondering how they still exist,” says Mouallem, who never let thoughts of the Baron stray far from his mind since he wrote the article, which still forms much of the basis for the Wikipedia page on the subject. “Years later, when I learned that both the McDonnell family and Rudy’s family had all recently closed their own restaurants I knew okay, now there’s a story, because the three people who ever claimed to be pioneers of it are now out of the business. And they were closing at a pretty steady pace, but at the same time there was this growing cult appreciation of them, largely because of (local comedian) Donovan Workun putting the Burger Baron sign from the closed Whyte Ave. location on the front of his house a couple of years ago.”

Mouallem began thinking in earnest about a celluloid take on the Baron story almost a year ago. At the same time he was contacted by Dylan Rhys Howard, a local filmmaker with whom he’d worked on the 2019 film Digging in the Dirt, a documentary about mental health in the oil patch. Howard was looking for pitches, and Mouallem had one, his dream project. Howard agreed, and CBC Gem stepped up to finance it.

Assembling a crew dotted with local Lebanese and Arab talent, including brothers Moh and Mazen Mahfouz on cinematography and sound respectively, they got to work. Outside cameramen were contacted to do interviews in California and Lebanon due to pandemic restrictions, while the score was composed by Ashraf El-Assaly of the University of Alberta’s North African Music Ensemble. Mouallem’s Toronto cousin Shadi Didi worked on a key graphics segment. The writer-director went into it expecting to make a light hearted comedy, but quickly discovered a very serious side to the story when one of his first interviews cried while being filmed.

“I realized that almost all of the families coming in during the Lebanese Civil War in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s all had very similar dramatic stories,” he says. “I think the reason it didn’t click for me at first is because my dad didn’t come here because of the civil war. He and the Kemaldeans are kind of the exception because it was the civil war that proliferated the Burger Barons by driving so many refugees and immigrants to Western Canada. Some were highly educated, some were teenagers, and they just had to go to work to support their families.”

At the moment the saga of the Burger Baron appears to be winding down as more and more close. This isn’t due to changing food trends or the pandemic, but instead the health of the owners and the lack of interest from family. They may or may not be on the way out, but the fact that they still exist is testament to the hard work of immigrants, refugees, and temporary foreign workers in this country.

“I thought that was an important message,” Mouallem says, “that immigrants in this province have become caretakers of an institution that means so much to so many people.”

The Last Baron has its sobering moments but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable watch. The filmmakers are looking forward to the 44 minute cut that will be played on CBC Gem but are also working towards a longer theatrical version that will delve a little more into the high weirdness of the Burger Baron story.

“We had a lot of fun making it,” Mouallem says. “Early on we started writing in Arabic on the clapper during production, and that became part of the poster for the film. It’s just a nice touch, writing out The Last Baron in Arabic, hinting towards a connection between Arab culture and the Burger Baron.”