The Israeli Film Europeans Are Going to Hate

Joseph Pichhadze’s new film opening this week is called “Sweets,” a seemingly innocent and childish title. It is anything but.

Shany Littman
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Shany Littman

Joseph Pichhadze’s new film opening this week is called “Sweets,” a seemingly innocent and childish title. The name doesn’t hint that the movie is about a bloody war between two candy tycoons, one a Jewish Israeli and the other a Palestinian. The screenplay was written eight years ago, after Pichhadze completed his previous film “Year Zero.” At the time he wanted to make a political film, but sought a way of doing so that suited him.

“The idea for the screenplay began with a strange story that I read, about a coffee war that took place here in Israel between an Arab company and an Israeli one,” he explains. “After the Arab side won, there was a candy war. I don’t believe in movies that deal with politics directly. That’s what we have newspapers for.”

The battlefield between the two businessmen (the Jew is played by Shmuel Vilozny and the Palestinian by Makram Khoury) contains a few other characters who find themselves involved in the dispute, including the Palestinian character Salah’s German partner, the son of a Nazi war criminal (played by Michael Sarne), the German’s French girlfriend Claudia (Sarah Adler), Salah’s Russian wife Natasha (Ruth Heilovsky) and two older hit men, Yuli and August (Moni Moshonov and Ezra Kafri).

Shortly after he had finished the script and was set to begin filming, Pichhadze’s life turned upside down. His wife, Shlomit Golan, died suddenly from a rare liver condition when she was in late pregnancy with their second daughter. A happy marriage was cut short after six years, and Pichhadze was left a single parent to Amalia, then five, and baby Sarah, whom the doctors managed to save and is now seven.

Did you think you’d ever make another film?

“I thought my life was over, not just movies. It’s a real and total devastation. And it took a long time. There was this huge black hole for many years, during which I was raising two girls, and I tried to make sure that they would be hurt as little as possible by the situation. So all I was doing was raising them, until they got to a point where they were more independent. It’s something they’ll now have to overcome in their own way. I hope I’ve given them the tools for that, because we can’t really be the best parents, we can only aspire to be.”

The screenplay that was filmed in the end includes elements of his personal tragedy. It’s not obvious – except in one scene – but can be discerned in the profound life experiences of the characters. The scene in which a character stands in the hospital corridor and the doctor tells him his wife is in serious condition while placing the newborn baby in his arms is re-enacted in the film exactly as it occurred, the director says. In the film it appears as a memory of one of the hit men, who all his life recalls the day he lost his beloved wife. But there are other allusions as well; a few characters lose their mothers, others lose their partners.

“My personal story is found in the film in certain touches that are more emotional than biographical, in the same way that my life is present in all my films,” says Pichhadze. “I like to say that my films are not biographical in the informative sense, but in the emotional sense, particularly in terms of their atmosphere. The gloom that you’re referring to is certainly there, although I must stress that despite that, it’s meant to be a very funny movie.”

Pichhadze was born in 1965 in Tbilisi, the capital of Soviet Georgia, and came to Israel when he was six. He studied film and television at Tel Aviv University, where he was in the same class as Doron Tsabari and Uri Inbar. His first film, “Under Western Eyes” (1996), dealt with the relationship between a young architect and his father, a spy who had been imprisoned in Israel and disappeared. His second film “Bésame Mucho” (2000) dealt with the world of criminals and other marginal figures, while his third film, “Year Zero” (2004), also brings together several characters who fight to survive in a cruel world.

It seems that in all his films Pichhadze is preoccupied by the question of victimhood. In “Sweets” there are a few characters who lose their lives due to the sins of others. “As human beings we are victims of ourselves in some way,” he says. “We love to say that we are victims of the system. For example, we love to talk about the unbearable socioeconomic situation in Israel. But there’s always an alternative. Sometimes it might be better to give something more experimental or adventurous a chance, than to repeatedly give your vote to someone who abuses you. I think my films walk that thin line of whether we are victims of an ideological system or if in the end we are victims of ourselves, cutting off the branch we’re sitting on.”

What Pichhadze finds most interesting in a movie is examining what lies behind human choices. “I wanted to say something through this conflict about human nature. Are we victims of the conflict, or are we creating it? Can we ever solve it? And what is it exactly that fuels this thing? Is it really ideologies? Does Salah really want to innocently open a chain of candy stores, or is it because they took his mother away from him when he was a little boy and she’d left him a handful of candy?”

Pichhadze doesn’t like to hear that many people think his movies “don’t look Israeli.” Maybe it’s because many Israeli movies are made in a very realistic style, as opposed to his films.

“Poignant realism in cinema generally doesn’t interest me,” he says. “Cinema is a dream. And I think that ‘Sweets’ is the most dreamlike film of all the movies I’ve made. I love when these dreams are abstract, with slightly different colors, and slightly different behavior, and slightly different relationships – but still come from the dismantling and rebuilding of human nature.”

Parallel to its screening in Israeli theaters, “Sweets” will also be shown at international festivals. Pichhadze doesn’t have much faith that the film will be popular, even though his previous films have won acclaim at major festivals. The reason, he says, is the character of Salah’s German partner, the son of a Nazi, who at the climax of the film is seized by the memory of his father and as a result walks around Jerusalem dressed in a Nazi uniform and sings.

“So far we’ve gotten some very harsh responses from the Europeans because the film accuses them of genetic anti-Semitism,” he says. “They were terribly shocked, but I have to say that I totally stand behind what the film says about Europe in this respect. It’s not provocative for the sake of being provocative. I think that their ambivalent attitude leads to a lot of hypocrisy. To sell nuclear weapons to Iran while at the same time imposing sanctions. I think that they are torn between some hidden, historic racism and their desire not to be like that. And I think that the Nazi character is not necessarily a German character. It’s a classic European character who is fighting this instinct.”

A still image from the movie 'Sweets'.Credit: Fred Kelemen
Director Joseph Pichhadze. Examins what lies behind human choices.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
A still image from the movie 'Sweets'.Credit: Fred Kelemen
A still image from the movie 'Sweets'.Credit: Fred Kelemen
A still image from the movie 'Sweets'.Credit: Fred Kelemen

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