King Khat

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King Khat/Photo courtesy of Daroma Productions

King Khat is sensory delight, a tale of one man’s adventures in science, psychoactive substances, danger, and love. Director Uri Marantz presents his protagonist Gabi Shalev, an almost stereotypical nerd – smart, socially awkward, and romantically inexperienced, whose life takes a turn towards the psychedelic. The film is based on real people and events, yet as perhaps is appropriate in relation to its trippy topic, it’s a genre-bender, with qualities of a feature film as well as a documentary. Gabi Shalev is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the real-life protagonist, the character is portrayed in the film by Oshri Cohen, and events are conveyed by Shalev’s stream of consciousness narration, always from a very personal perspective. Cohen, complete with de rigueur nerdy black framed glasses, invites the viewer’s empathy, conveying the image of a sweet, ordinary guy, who was just looking for a fun high, and along the way became a drug baron. The visual storytelling is a dominant and exhilarating aspect of the film, Nir Matarasso’s animation is so vividly playful and richly textured, with references from Steampunk to Jan Van Eyk, it’s clever, irreverent, and gorgeous.

King Khat/Photo courtesy of Daroma Productions

The factual background to the film involves the drug Hagigat, which began to be sold in kiosks in Israel in 2003 and became very popular. At the time, Hagigat was legal, because it had not been added to the State of Israel’s dangerous drug ordinance. That was because Hagigat was based on a synthesized version of cathinone, a stimulant found in the plant Khat (Gat in Yemini Arabic), native to eastern and southeastern Africa. Chewing Khat leaves is a traditional social activity, primarily among men, in certain cultures, including Yemen, from whence the custom migrated to Israel. Growing the Khat plant, and chewing Khat leaves is legal in Israel, in part because it is a traditional custom, but also in practical terms, perhaps it remains legal because one must chew the leaves for a long time to achieve even a mild, mood-altering effect (or so they say, I have never tried it myself).

King Khat/Photo courtesy of Daroma Productions

King Khat is a psychedelic bildungsroman, as Shalev describes his journey and transformation from a romantically and sexually inexperienced nerd working in the hi-tech industry, to an enthusiastic drug user, producer, and advocate. The film raises interesting, albeit not new, questions regarding the definition of a dangerous drug, and the inevitable consequence of making drugs illegal – the inexorable connection between drugs and the criminal world. It’s also a rather uncritical perspective on capitalism, and the dream of becoming rich, at almost any personal cost, that in its acceptance of the glorification of the start-up exit and monetary success, invites a critique. Yet for me, the most compelling aspect of the film – in addition to the lavish, enticing, animation – is its perspective on love and relationships.

King Khat/Photo courtesy of Daroma Productions

For Gabi Shalev, his first experience of cocaine is in the context of his first sexually gratifying and exciting relationship. He talks about the human need to “escape” to feel, at least temporarily, that everything is all right, even if it is not. Sex, love, and psychoactive drugs, as well as alcohol and other substances, offer that kind of escape. The film follows Gabi’s pursuit of love, drug-induced highs, and success, and the ways in which these needs, desires, and goals interact and sometimes contradict one another. Gabi’s relationship with his wife Limor (portrayed by Hadar Diamond), contributes depth to the film in its depiction of the couples’ conflicts and the ways in which they try to resolve them. In this sense, King Khat is also a love story, one in which the protagonists are confronted with the timeless question: what would you be willing to sacrifice for the sake of love? The viewer accompanies Gabi on this journey, through his highs and lows, in a film which achieves a very intimate tone, with Gabi telling his story as if confiding in a friend. It’s a very persuasive narrative from a rather unreliable narrator, and tremendously fun.

King Khat

Israel/Portugal/2023/75 min

Director: Uri Marantz; Screenplay: Uri Marantz; Cinematographer: Ido Berlad; Editor: Yoav Harel; Original Soundtrack: Stav Ben Shachar, Noam Vardi; Animation: Nir Matarasso; Background Design: Dafna Englander; Cast: Oshri Cohen, Hadar Diamond