Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee, which just screened at TIFF, chronicles a filmmaker’s rage against both government censorship and the impending death of his mother.
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With a global pandemic, wars, genocide, and climate change raging on throughout the globe — all of it preventable — there’s a lot to be angry about at the moment. Yet as individuals, it can seem like there’s little we can do to stop these things: our small actions can only go so far if they aren’t supported by the world’s leaders. I’ve felt so much rage and nihilism lately over how little agency I have to fix global problems; it makes it easy to stop thinking of yourself and others as individuals whose personal problems are also worthy of concern. Nadav Lapid’s latest, Ahed’s Knee, bottles this frustrated feeling better than any other piece of art I’ve seen in the last few years.
Set in Israel, it’s a film haunted by the genocide of Palestinians, the oppressive Israeli state, and climate change, all filtered through a protagonist who feels the weight of the world’s problems on his shoulders. Y (Avshalom Pollak) is a filmmaker from Tel Aviv travelling to Arava, a tiny town in the Israeli desert, for a screening of his latest film. He’s a strange, abrasive, unlikeable man; Pollak plays him with a permanent scowl. When Y arrives in Arava, he’s greeted by the young, enthusiastic Yahalom (Nur Fibak), who arranged this screening in her hometown, but lives in Jerusalem where she works for the Ministry of Culture.
The film is a cat-and-mouse two-hander between Y and Yahalom, the latter of whom seems kind and well-intentioned, but by virtue of her job, represents and enforces the Israeli government’s censorship of art. She cheerily asks Y to complete a form. He has to check off a list of government-approved topics to discuss in his filmmaker Q&A — topics like family, antisemitism, and the Holocaust are encouraged, but anything that criticises the Israeli state isn’t an option, and could get Y blacklisted. Signing the form is the only way for him to get paid. When Yahalom casually admits to Y that she also thinks the form is kind of bullshit, he hatches a plan: later in the day, he will secretly tape her speaking out against the Ministry of Culture, and then release the audio to expose the Ministry’s hypocrisy.
Y is deeply angry, for both personal and political reasons. If you asked him why he hates the world so much, he’d probably rant about global issues and Israel’s corrupt government. He has many monologues in the film about Israeli censorship. There’s a moment when a local points out a pile of rotting bell peppers by the side of the road, which prompts Y to muse on the destructiveness of climate change. Before he gets to Arava, the film begins with Y holding auditions for his new film, which tells the story of Ahed, a Palestinian teenager who was imprisoned for slapping an Israeli soldier. Y’s art and his interpersonal conversations are highly political.
Lapid hints early on that Y’s nihilism has another source that Y rarely acknowledges: the impending death of his mother, who has terminal cancer. Lapid has admitted himself, on several occasions, that Ahed’s Knee is a deeply personal film. In an interview with Deadline, he talks about how he wrote the script in just two weeks, only a month after his mother, Era Lapid, died. She had worked with him on all of his previous features (Policeman, 2011; The Kindergarten Teacher, 2014; Synonyms, 2019) as an editor. The character of Y also worked with his mother, who co-wrote all his films, and she seems to be the only person in the film that he doesn’t hate. Y is constantly filming images of the desert in Arava to send to his mother, and halfway through the film, he calls her just to check in. Y’s films have always been political, but it’s ambiguous whether he’s always been this miserable, or if he’s waging war on the world because he doesn’t want to face his grief.
Visually and aurally, Lapid takes pains to remind us that there’s someone behind the camera, perhaps to assert that he doesn’t align himself with Y. The camera moves in unusual ways in Ahed’s Knee, sometimes making sudden, restless pans up, down, left, or right. Sometimes, these movements are motivated by Y’s gaze, but at other times, the camera seems to have a life of its own. In one scene, Y takes a phone call, pacing back and in front of the camera, and the sound of his voice fades in and out as he gets closer and further away from the camera. It’s as if the camera is a character independent from Y and not always interested in following him. It’s easy to assume close connection between director and protagonist when they share so many autobiographical details, but Lapid’s ambivalent camera reminds us that Lapid is just as critical of Y as Y is critical of the world around him.
Late in the film, Lapid incorporates flashbacks to Y’s as a youth doing his mandated service in the Israeli military, which portray him as part of the system that he hates. In the Deadline interview, Lapid states, “In my movies an important thing is that the main characters are not better than the people they try to criticise. They suffer from the same disease: they are violent, they are brutal, they have no patience, they can be cruel or mean or ruthless.” As Y is a character who spends most of the film speaking out against corruption, Ahed’s Knee could have easily become a political lecture. Lapid is smart enough to complicate Y, not just by making him unlikeable in demeanor, but by digging into his past as an enforcer of Israeli nationalism. There are no heroes or villains in this film, only a society designed to corrupt its people.
Ahed’s Knee culminates in an intense confrontation between Y and Yahalom at the top of a hill while Y’s film is screening inside the nearby library. The wind stirs up into a roar as Y executes his plan, goading Yahalom into admitting the Ministry of Culture’s corruption, delivering a furious screed to her until she’s a crying wreck. It’s a challenging scene: nothing Y says is incorrect, and his anger against the system is completely justified. Yet the film prompts us to ask, is he expressing his anger in the right way, and to the right person?
Yahalom may be part of the system, but she also has little power to change it; above her are the authorities who tell her what to do, lest she lose her job to someone more willing to play by the rules. What use is it to Y if he releases the tape and ruins her life to make a statement, when the system will still remain in place? It’s depressing how futile Y’s efforts seem in the end. But there is still something much smaller that he can do to satiate his anger: letting it all out and having a good cry about how much he’s going to miss his mother.
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