On Set With One of Israel’s Most Intriguing Directors

After an eight-year hiatus, Joseph Pitchhadze, one of the country’s preeminent filmmakers, is back in the director’s chair.

Ein Karem, Jerusalem. Some long tables are arranged in a row, side by side, in the yard of a house. The pealing of bells can be heard from one of the churches nearby. A smiling man sits on top of one of the tables, playing the accordion. Just below him, on a chair, sits actor Menashe Noy with a cigarette holder in hand from which he takes a periodic puff, as he sings a quiet song. Crew members rush about, the cinematographer and his assistant go over the shooting of the next scene, the director hands out final instructions to the actors, and every few minutes somebody else looks skyward with apprehension, hoping the clouds will stay where they are and not allow a single stray ray of sunshine to disrupt the winter grayness.

When the director calls out “Action!” the surrounding hubbub quickly morphs into a long, meticulous and eventful shot on the monitor. After a close-up on the accordion that fills the screen, the camera begins panning to the right. Actress Sarah Adler’s face flickers in the frame for a moment, and the camera moves over to reveal that her affectionate gaze is directed at Noy, who is still humming. The camera continues panning until it reaches two men, sitting at a nearby table.

Emil Salman

“I’m sorry, Sala, really,” an elderly man says, in German-accented English, to the man seated beside him.

“Salah! Salah! My fucking name is Salah!” the latter angrily retorts. “When are you leaving?” he asks.

“Tonight,” replies the gaunt foreigner, and places his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Maybe in the future, my good friend, maybe the day will come and we will work together yet again.”

His Arab interlocutor spits out a curse, gets up in a fury and storms off.

That scene spells the end of the business partnership between the Palestinian hero of “Sukariot” (“Candy”), the new film directed by Joseph Pitchhadze, and his German partner. Salah, played by Makram Khoury, is an Arab-Israeli merchant and entrepreneur who decides at the start of the film to bring joy to

Israel’s Arab children by opening a chain of candy stores. He enlists a German partner (Michael Sarne) and has dreams of making it big.

But the folks at Ha’hevra, the corporation that dominates the Israeli candy market and is headed by Klausner (Shmuel Vilozny), feel threatened by the new initiative − both in terms of business and on a political-cultural level. They are determined to do everything in their power to block the new competition. Soon enough the rivalry deteriorates into violence, which ends in a pointless bloodbath.

Currently being filmed in Jerusalem, “Candy” marks the return to filmmaking of one of the most esteemed and interesting directors working in Israel today. Eight years after the release of his last film, “Year Zero” (which Haaretz film critic Uri Klein described at the time as “one of the loveliest and most moving films of the year”), Tbilisi-born Pitchhadze is back at the helm of a new and intriguing film project.

The new film is an Israeli-French co-production, the screenplay for which Pitchhadze wrote together with Dov Stoyer (who also co-wrote and produced “Year Zero” with him). Ran Friedberg is co-producing with them, and they are joined by a crew and cast from Pitchhadze’s previous efforts, among them “Under Western Eyes” ‏(1996‏) and “Besame Mucho” ‏(2000‏).

“These people are also friends of mine in my personal life. To my mind, making a movie means getting up in the morning and trying to do something good with the people you like to be with,” says Pitchhadze, who turned 47 this week, during one of the breaks in shooting.

Besides Khoury, Adler and Sarne, the large cast of “Candy” includes Moni Moshonov, Ezra Kafri, Danny Geva, Dvir Benedek and French actor Stephane Freiss ‏(“5 x 2”).

‘Complicated choreography’

“I was supposed to make this movie more than five years ago, but for personal reasons that wasn’t possible, so I dropped the project,” Pitchhadze says. “A few years later, when people began asking why I hadn’t made another film, I started rewriting the script. Originally, the idea for the film was a conflict involving candy that escalates into a political war, which attempts to touch on the existential condition of man in the modern world.”

There are many political elements in his movie, Pitchhadze explains, “but they always stem from the humane, from human beings. I wanted to touch on all sorts of existential, regional and human problems that we all deal with all the time, but I wanted to do it not by dealing with politics directly, but rather through a business competition.”

At a certain point, Pitchhadze came across a newspaper article about a brutal rivalry that erupted between Jewish and Arab coffee manufacturers.

“It sounded interesting to me − to blend the business and personal issue with politics and the regional conflict, and to combine all of this with a European angle, which debates whether or not to get involved in the conflict.”

Asked why he chose candy, of all things, Pitchhadze says, grinning, “Because that’s what I like and what everybody likes. Incidentally, after we had already begun filming, we learned that the same Arab company that had got into a coffee war with the Israeli company later tried to wage the same battle in the candy field.”

“This is a melancholic action movie,” says Stoyer, the film’s co-writer. “It has funny scenes and also action scenes, but a sort of melancholy hovers over everything. It stems primarily from the characters, but also to a certain extent from the situation in the region. It is not a comedy, but nor is it a sad film that takes itself seriously. I think that for a comedy it’s a pretty sad movie, and for a tragedy, you could certainly say that it has a lot of action and laughs. It’s a bit like Jean Renoir’s films, which don’t have one bad guy, everyone is ostensibly okay, but in the end somebody dies. Here too there is no single bad guy. Each of the characters has justifications for what he or she does, but still people die in the end.”

“Candy” has a budget of about NIS 6 million, and has received funding from the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, the Jerusalem Development Authority’s film and television project, Yes satellite TV and Channel 10. The cinematography has been entrusted to Fred Kelemen, who shot the last two films of the esteemed Hungarian director Bela Tarr (“The Man from London,” “The Turin Horse”), whom Pitchhadze describes as “an incredible cinematographer.”

“This is a movie that is made up entirely of one-shots − [scenes shot in their entirety without cutting] except for one scene − and that means very complicated choreography of camera with actors, with space, and with time,” he continues. “Since Fred is probably the best photographer alive today, at least in my eyes, with him this is doable.”

Pitchhadze categorizes this difficult work as yet another stage in his professional development: “In my evolution as a director I began to feel that truncated mis-en-scenes had begun to bore me, and this challenge − to manage to hold time and place within a unit of time that is not cut − is a challenge I very much wanted to grapple with. Alongside Fred, we have a wonderful crew and cast that I’ve known for years, and I felt that together we can do this.”

Pitchhadze’s long break from filmmaking was prompted by, among other things, the death of his wife five years ago, which left him to raise his two daughters, now aged 5 and 10, alone.

“I had no opportunity to make movies, because that involves taking a break of several months from life, from the daily routine, and with two little girls that is impossible,” he says. Not that it is easy for him now.

“It’s one of those Sisyphean acts,” he explains. “It’s like asking someone climbing Mt. Everest why he is doing it. After all, there are so many difficulties and travails along the way, but somehow doing this confronts the ‘Sisyphean-ness’ of life. That is how I view making a film. And to do something like this, against all odds, especially a movie as complicated as the one we are making now − there is something exciting about that.”