Israel is a land that when you first visit, you feel like you belong there. As if it is somehow part of your own DNA. It’s perhaps the reason the country is so besieged with issues, so many claiming a stake to the small nation that includes the barren desert of Arava to its south.
It is in the midst of this desert landscape that most of Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee takes place. The name featured in the title refers to Ahed Tamimi — the Palestinian 16-year old activist who, back in 2018, spent nine months in jail after slapping an Israeli soldier during a raid on her family home. For Palestinians everywhere Tamimi became a freedom fighter, a pint-sized heroine; by Israeli standards she was immediately branded as a terrorist. She was threatened on social media and someone suggested shooting her in the knee to cripple her. Thus Lapid’s film title, also a reference to Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee.
What an ignored part of the body the knee is, he makes us wonder, and yet what a haunting tribute the filmmaker pays to it, in the first ten minutes of his latest oeuvre.
Let’s get this out of the way: everything about Ahed’s Knee is spellbinding.
Through the film we follow Y, a filmmaker, at first as he tries to cast his latest in Tel Aviv, auditioning actresses for the role of Tamimi. Y is Lapid’s alter ego, and it doesn’t take long for the audience to realize it, even if the magnetic actor playing him, Avshalom Pollak looks different from the filmmaker. Those familiar with Lapid’s work, know most of it is autobiographical.
Just as a terrifying image involving a sledgehammer flashes in front of our eyes — I gasped out loud — we then see Y on his journey to the Arava desert, where he is going to introduce his award-winning film at a remote outpost. He’s met upon arrival by a pretty, bubbly young woman, Yahalom, played magnificently by Nur Fibak. There are no other credits for Fibak on her IMDb page, and yet we’ll see so much more of her to come, mark my words.
Yahalom is the director of Libraries for the Ministry of Culture, and I may paraphrase her title a bit. Anyway, her cheeriness, in the face of Y’s anhedonia and repressed anger plays like a flat note played during a Beethoven symphony — jarring. Because Y is also carrying around a secret, aside from a clear case of PTSD from his army service days. His mother is dying of lung cancer. That raised the little hairs on my forearms, as that is what Lapid’s own mother succumbed to.
During their mostly one-sided exchange — Yahalom speaks excitedly and Y listens, with an almost hunter-like gaze fixed upon her — the filmmaker is asked to sign a piece of paper, agreeing on which topics he’ll be allowed to discuss in the post-screening Q & A. And here is where we begin to witness what Lapid himself says about free speech in Israel, which has turned into a "gloomy winter sun, growing dark and dying.” Much like Iranian filmmakers having to circumvent censorship in their land by using children and metaphors to make their cinematic points, Israeli filmmakers have had to deal with the looming threat of the law of loyalty, initiated by the minister of Culture, forbidding the funding of any artwork deemed unfaithful to the government.
Without giving any more away, I will say that Ahed’s Knee feels like a grand Western (even though it was reportedly filmed on a low budget) and as such requires watching it in a cinema. Actually, the film demands multiple viewings including one on a laptop, one on a TV screen but most of all one played on a big screen, surrounded by people, in the public darkness of a theatre. The soundtrack of Lapid’s film is phenomenal and infectious, and includes Vanessa Paradis’ version of Be My Baby, an unforgettable dance sequence to Lovely Day by Bill Withers and Imperya by Israeli hip-hop group Shabak Samech. Just those songs alone, with their relative vertiginous close-ups on the actors, require a big screen. They crave it in fact.
What we miss in Ahed’s Knee is Era Lapid’s masterful editing. Lapid’s mother sadly passed away in 2018. Among those sweeping camera shots, where the filmmaker isn’t afraid to make his audience dizzy, the nihilistic view of the nation where he was born, which makes Michelangelo Antonioni’s work seem like a Roberto Benigni film in the presence of Y-slash-Lapid, her work left a gap. She edited all of her son’s films from The Kindergarten Teacher to Synonyms.
And yet her presence is still palpable, in the short moments of respite that we get, away from Y’s anger, his constant contempt. Only when he shoots on his phone the landscape around him to send to his mom, does he become filled “with gentleness, with kindness, with wonder, with curiosity,” as Lapid says in his director’s notes. We love Y then, and that love makes us accept everything that he does next.
"In the end, it's the geography that wins," Era Lapid would have said. And maybe humanity could too, we would add. If humanity is made up of filmmakers like Nadav Lapid who believe that culture and art are worth fighting for, by whatever means necessary.
As a final aside, Ahed’ Knee, with all its controversy and pointing the finger, was supported by the Israeli Film Council, the Israeli Film Fund and even the Ministry of Culture and Sport. And if that isn’t about building cultural bridges…
Israel, Hebrew with English subtitles, 2021, 109 minutes
Director Nadav Lapid
Screenplay Nadav Lapid, with Hain Lapid (consultant, screenplay)
Production Pascale Consigny
Cinematography by Shai Goldman
Editor Nili Feller
Producers Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Talia Kleinhendler,Judith Lou Lévy, Eve Robin
International Sales Kinology, distributed in the US by Kino Lorber
Main cast Avshalom Pollak, Nur Fibak, Yoram Honig, Lidor Ederi, Yonathan Kugler, Yehonathan Vilozni, Naama Preis