A film of enormous aesthetic and storytelling ambition, Ahed’s Knee trains its lens on a seemingly small slice of Israeli life that becomes, by its end, a deafening roar of anguish about the state of the nation, at least as director Nadav Lapid (Synonyms) sees it. His protagonist, named simply Y (probably short for Yoav, given how often Lapid uses that name), is also a filmmaker, and what starts out as a would-be innocuous screening of one of his movies in the remote desert settlement of Sapir quickly turns sour once he is asked to declare which topics he will discuss at the Q&A. Correctly reading this as a form of not-so-subtle censorship, he grows angrier and more impassioned as the day goes on. His final diatribe is a condemnation not only of attacks on freedom of speech but of Israeli treatment of Arabs and the government’s tyrannical approach to controlling history.
Lapid has mined this territory before, but never in a manner quite so frenetic, the camera replicating Y’s internal state even before we meet him. In an elliptical opening sequence, we travel in the company of someone who may or may not be his actress for an upcoming project as she rides through city streets and then arrives on what looks like a film set. That new movie Y is planning is the titular one, about Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, jailed after she confronted and slapped an Israeli soldier. Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) Bezalel Smotrich tweeted that she should have been shot, at least in the knee. Hence, our framework.
As with all Israeli citizens, Y (a fully committed Avshalom Pollak, Mountain) once served in the military, though that experience left him with the opposite of nationalist views. We see in these first scenes his attempts to wrestle, in a creatively experimental way, with the state-sanctioned violence meted out towards any who dare to protest. As a celebrated director, he has traveled the world. But will he survive at home?
Upon arrival in Sapir, he is met by the genial Yahalom (an equally fine Nur Fibak), Deputy Director of the Ministry of Culture’s Libraries Division. She’s born and raised in the area but then was plucked out of the community and brought to Jerusalem after a ministry scandal forced the suits to look for new blood. Y is shocked at how young she is, and at first we wonder if his intense interest in what she has to say holds any sexual desire. Lapid often places the two actors very close to each other in a tight two shot, at least raising the possibility of that question.
But no. Though, to my taste, Y manhandles the younger woman a little too much as things get heated, his intentions are more intellectual and political. After Yahalom hands him the form on which he needs to select those Q&A themes, Y becomes more and more fixated on a confrontation with her, whom he sees as a proxy for the state. Meanwhile, there’s a movie to be screened. Though that doesn’t stop Y from wandering the arid surroundings and photographing landscapes to send to his dying mother, who has always heretofore been his artistic collaborator, much as Lapid’s mother was his before her death in 2018.
There are, therefore, many parallels, no doubt, between Y and Lapid, which perhaps explains the full-bore narrative approach. Even in the quiet moments there is an intensity to the affair, at certain points the sound of blood rushing through one’s head overtaking the ambient sound. There is no future without a robust consideration of the past. Or, as Y quotes his mom, “In the end, geography always wins.” Take note, those who would subvert the public’s right to meditate on whatever they so choose. Eventually, the truth will out. Maybe.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
Film at Lincoln Center; Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee movie review