Through such films as The Kindergarten Teacher and the Golden Bear-winning Synonyms, Nadav Lapid has earned a reputation for thematically and formally challenging work. For his latest effort Ahed’s Knee, the Israeli filmmaker continues in the same vein, with a drama that takes its cues from real world events to make a bold cinematic statement. The result is a typically eccentric rumination on Israeli art, politics and society.
Indeed, Lapid courts controversy from the opening of the film, nodding towards the Israeli occupation of Palestine. After a young Palestinian activist named Ahed Tamimi goes viral following a protest, a prominent official remarks that she should have been shot in the knee. This outrageous statement plays on the mind of a filmmaker known simply as Y (Avshalom Pollak), as he makes his way to the desert region of Arava for a screening of one of his films. Upon arrival, he is welcomed by a representative of Israel’s Department of Libraries named Yahalom (Nur Fibak).
The pair initially strike a cordial rapport as she confesses to be a fan of his work. But when she requests that he sign a form confirming that the film adheres to a rigid set of pro-Israel rules, his internal resentment begins to build. Despite her pleasant demeanour, he begins to see her as a representation of everything he hates about the government’s censorship of art and its oppressive political ideals.
With a provocative filmmaker at its centre and a plot-line surrounding the production of a film about Ahed Tamimi (a real life activist), it’s clear that this is Lapid’s most personal and self-reflexive work to date. Indeed, it’s easy to see Y as a surrogate for Lapid as he pontificates his deep concerns about censorship of art and blind patriotism. In the most overtly critical scenes, Y unleashes impassioned monologues on these perils of contemporary Israeli society.
Ahed’s Knee therefore feels, at times, like a glorified diatribe against the establishment. But thankfully, Lapid embellishes the storytelling with cinematic flourishes that provide nuance and complexity. Notably, the almost seductive tension between Y and Yahalom (stunningly conveyed by Pollak and Fibak) hints at Lapid’s own struggles with his compromised place within the film industry.
Lapid has more than just scorched earth anger on his mind however. When he’s not raging against the machine, he also experiments with absurdist song-and-dance interludes which juxtapose thrillingly with the quietude of the desert setting. Furthermore, wartime flashbacks pose broader moral questions than the central commentary on contemporary Israel.
At once austere and spontaneous, Ahed’s Knee doesn’t always hit the mark with its mix of caustic social commentary and playful artistic expression. But throughout, it’s never anything less than thoughtful and captivating. Despite the impossibility suggested by the film’s message, this is clearly the work of a distinctive auteur.
Ahed’s Knee screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.