One of the worst habits many film critics partake in at film festivals is firing off a tweet declaring that they need to let a film “marinate” after initially seeing it, so desperate to voice an immediate reaction even if they haven’t found the words to adequately describe their feelings. And yet, while watching Nadav Lapid’s abrasively satirical new film Ahed’s Knee, I could feel myself needing to shout about its singular brilliance even as I hadn’t fully untangled the multitude of metatextual ways in which it weaves the personal and the political. This is as much of a damning state of the nation address as it is a deeply critical examination of how the director perceives himself, reaching into both his past and that of the country around him, quickly finding that he’s unable to contain his anger towards either.
Image © Courtesy of TIFF
Lapid’s film focuses on Y (a great Avshalom Polak), an internationally regarded filmmaker in the process of casting for a work about Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian protester who was imprisoned for slapping an Israeli soldier. As we see it, the work in progress features a lot of knee close ups, and an actress singing Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N Roses. Still undecided as to whether this can be a film or an art installation, he accepts an offer to visit the remote desert town of Sapir to present one of his previous films at a small library. Here he meets Yahalom (Nur Fibak), who is in charge of the Ministry of Culture’s Libraries Department, and is responsible for making him sign forms effectively censoring him from critiquing Israel, or speaking out about Palestine. Yahalom is clearly disdainful of this, although she hides it for professional reasons, something which Y sets out to exploit. Meanwhile, he’s facing up to a lingering loss as his mother is in the final stages of her battle with cancer.
The extent to which Lapid’s films are autobiographical is surprisingly under-discussed in assessments of his work. His 2014 film The Kindergarten Teacher took inspiration from poems he claimed to have written as a child, while his 2019 effort Synonyms studied a character who, like the director, moved to Paris from Israel after completing his compulsory military service. At times, the ways he weaved personal narratives with damning social critiques could be impenetrable; the former film is so peculiarly written it only makes sense as allegory, but its brief moments criticising the nationalistic fervour of his country complicate any reading of how it could be specifically perceived as such. There’s nothing which could be described as indecipherable about Ahed’s Knee, which is a vitriolic assault at a country growing increasingly censorious and overly moralistic, and quite literally so by the end, as his screen avatar unleashes all his anger towards the various hypocrisies in the country around him. In this regard, it’s an intriguing extension of his prior film, the story of an immigrant who desperately wanted to sever all ties with the country he left behind, finding himself increasingly unable to.
As a political statement, Ahed’s Knee largely preaches to the choir, something which would largely be uninteresting in and of itself. There are few things less intriguing than a film merely articulating a widely held belief relating to politics or social justice, designed to make the audience nod along in agreement and nothing more. Instead, the intrigue comes from the manner in which Lapid’s film functions as auto fiction. Written in two weeks in the wake of his mother’s death, the real life tragedy is dramatised as a means of examining his function as an artist after losing his closest collaborator (his mother Era edited his first two films).
Image © Courtesy of TIFF
It’s a scathing depiction of a man who clearly wants to perceive himself as a troubled genius; a guy who makes provocative works tackling serious themes that read as empty, who speaks in heavy handed metaphors about the state of his country, and self-indulgently brags about his minor celebrity status when talking to women on Tinder. There are some gags at the expense of the film culture around him, not least in a sequence where he speaks to a white actress hoping to be cast as the Palestinian lead of his film. But for the most part, his scorn turns inward, questioning how important his own voice is even at a time when many are being silenced for stating the beliefs he shares. The film’s third act, which digs deeper into Y’s lingering PTSD following military service, allows for a more conventional reading of the character. But Ahed’s Knee is at its most interesting prior to this, the filmmaker channeling his own grief via a satirisation of the very idea of the director-as-tortured artist trope.
This is Lapid’s most formally arresting film to date, readily alternating between iPhone shot footage and restless camera work that seems desperate to trigger motion sickness. Standard conversations in cars or living rooms are transformed via a camera that keeps panning away in circular motions, which becomes increasingly focused the more Y is able to finally find a voice for his own anger. It may be a heavy handed way of highlighting the character’s distractions before reckoning with his own lingering trauma, but it all but demands you sit up and take notice nonetheless. Coupled with the various digressions, such as extravagantly staged musical numbers, and the film could be seen as much of a testament to the powers of filmmaking as it is a takedown of its timidity in the face of censorship. In that regard, it proves irresistible in spite of its acidity.
Written by Alistair Ryder
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.