After a work that has never shied away from politics, the latest film by Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, Ahed’s knee, offers his most blunt criticism yet of his native government. By working in autofiction, centering his work on a filmmaker as eager as he is to tackle the weight and injustice of the Israeli occupation, Lapid’s critiques are stated as clearly as possible while keeping this work in a fictional space.
But he barely does, playing with distance and proximity to expand his lens into more personal, self-inquiring working spaces that lend a needed intimacy to the film’s often abstract statements about geopolitics. What ensues is an examination of the tensions between artistic ego and humility, conscience and ambition, personal vanity and empathetic concern, and what is suggested by the film’s ending is that all are necessary to producing a good job – with every trait presenting itself as much in dialogue as the aesthetic stylizations of the film itself.
By employing a crude auteur surrogate via the figure of Y (an acerbic filmmaker and videographer played by choreographer Avshalom Pollak), Lapid shines a light on a character whose political beliefs are underpinned as much by his own self-esteem as they are genuine political convictions. and humanitarian concern. The film opens with a music video-like performance for the filming of a work by Y, inspired by the work of real-life Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, which serves as both a vital artistic counterpoint to the own work of Y and narrative framework that manages to haunt the film. Despite the strength of the brief hold of this extract on the first minutes of the film, Ahed’s knee primarily involves Israeli artists and officials in the absence of Palestinian voices. Approaching Tamimi as a point of contrast, Lapid critically presents the conflict with the myopic but well-meaning perspective of its main Israeli characters as a guide. Operating with a sense of greatly reduced stakes, these characters approach the Israeli occupation as an awkward aesthetic, political and ethical dilemma that those like them – with structural advantages over the occupied Palestinian people – can categorically claim to resolve.
Moving intermittently between Y’s home in Tel Aviv and the more isolated, desert setting of Arava, Ahed’s knee finds his lead preparing to present work at a small library – but with documents presented by Israel’s Ministry of Culture that he must first sign. By presenting him with a list of authorized subjects (which ostensibly omit Palestinian and more broadly non-Jewish concerns), this list of authorized subjects constitutes a pernicious and thinly veiled form of bureaucratic censorship against which Y relentlessly denounces.
Monologizing either into his phone or to a sympathetic but constrained deputy of Yahalom (an ever-torn Nur Fibak), Y’s emotional bandwidth swings mostly between fury and frustration: just responses to the political repression of the State. (For Americans concerned about actual censorship — a rarity — the contours of that might merit closer scrutiny, as would cases where related measures limiting speech critical of Israel come up here.) Y’s take on the film – and nearly all of its executives – marines its modest acting in a deep sense of outrage, making the film a searing relief valve for critical political sentiment.
Between his smoldering outbursts, however, Y unleashes more freedom: whether jamming music through his square headphones or leaving diaristic voicemails for his cancer-stricken mother (never seen on screen). ), there’s a level of mystery to Y’s inner life that Lapid seems happy to keep. With most of the film focused on his movements through dunes, barren landscapes and, at one point, a desert oasis, the feeling of Ahed’s knee as a quest for vision hangs above its debates, even if the sorts of breakthrough revelations it might entail turn out to be largely delayed. Instead, Lapid leaves us with an examination of the life of the mind, a struggle against forms of repression imposed both from within and without.
To that end: even as cinematographer Shai Goldman’s desert vistas largely position Y amid a landscape of neighboring, bright but largely muted hues, his camera work lashes out against that same environment. With simple shots rushing to close-ups of physical or environmental detail (notably Y’s extremities during an exceptional dance sequence in the middle of the open desert), Lapid expresses an appetite for the erratic and the uncontrolled. Echoing the thematic preoccupations of the film, these formal gestures Ahed’s kneeThe monologue-driven action feels internal in a welcome way, cutting off its air of dreamy abstraction with a more passionate emotional core.
This balance is delicate and, in many ways, is the subject of the film: Ahed’s knee is about nothing more than the challenges and psychic demands of creating charged political art. Focusing on this in terms of attitude and mindset more than the actions involved, Lapid examines Y’s position (and by extension his own) quite critically. While Y’s concerns about injustice seem obviously sincere, it also speaks to the position of privileged distance that those upset by unbalanced geopolitics so often take: something that Lapid’s film could also be accused of. While Tamimi’s presence on the periphery of the film gives a brief glimpse into the more concrete issues of the conflict (as the film notes, she was imprisoned as a teenager for hitting – not hurting – an Israeli soldier), this that Y endures in state repression manages as easily to retain significance as to pale in comparison to its own struggles. “They’re kicking us in the wallet,” Y says at one point of state restrictions on his work, “forcing us to buy the cheapest brands.” Compared to incarceration, such rebukes seem laughable even if they matter, given the role of political discourse as a cornerstone of effective activism.
While highlighting these disparities and questioning the various limits of his own power in producing salutary political work, Lapid points to the harm done to all citizens by suppressing expression that supports the marginalized or criticizes governments in power. . In fighting this, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has deprived all people in the region and some beyond a basic right, whether militarily or through more discreet bureaucratic means.
While talking about it might seem at least thematically straightforward or politically obvious, it’s Lapid’s self-awareness about his work that elevates Ahed’s knee as a welcome artistic and political text. By being self-reflective – and therefore personally questioning – the film achieves a rich sense of ambiguity one would rarely find in a screed.