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By Chris Wisniewski

NYFF 2021:
Ahed’s Knee
Dir. Nadav Lapid, Israel, Kino Lorber

With Ahed’s Knee, writer-director Nadav Lapid returns—with a vengeance—to his native Israel after his 2019 detour to Paris with Synonyms, and with its predecessor, Ahed’s Knee shares traces of autobiography. The latest concerns an internationally recognized Israeli filmmaker (Avshalom Pollack) who travels to a remote desert town for a screening of one of his movies organized by the Ministry of Culture. Throughout his trip, he corresponds with his dying mother, who also happens to be a longtime collaborator. Lapid’s mother, Era Lapid, edited his previous films through Synonyms and died in 2018, and so, despite the way this film withholds specificity regarding its central character—information about his career and work is alluded to elliptically, and the filmmaker remains nameless—it’s easy to presume Lapid has borrowed from personal experience on some level here. To the extent that is the case, Ahed’s Knee functions at times as a critical self-portrait, while also following previous efforts like Policeman (2011), The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), and Synonyms (2019) in mounting an excoriating excavation of Israeli masculinity, politics, and culture.

The Ahed of the title is real-life Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, famous for a viral video in which she slapped an Israeli soldier, an incident that led to her imprisonment, and the reference to her knee invokes an angry tweet by an Israeli expressing a desire to shoot her in the kneecap. Racialized and politicized violence are thus implicitly centered by Lapid’s film even if they’re not its ostensible focus. Here, Ahed is the subject of the next project by the filmmaker, and Lapid’s movie opens with an astonishing sequence that is meant to be the filmmaker’s footage, an early cue that Lapid intends to disorient and that the images we see onscreen may not always correspond in obvious ways to the reality of his fiction.

It turns out that the Ahed project functions as something of a misdirect, and the film’s central narrative begins to take shape with a scene that plays as an extended two-hander between the filmmaker and the Ministry of Culture official Yahalom (Nur Fibak) who’s organized the screening in her small hometown. The young, attractive, and forthcoming official ingratiates herself to the abrasive filmmaker, as Lapid teases a more pleasant movie than Ahed’s Knee with their flirtatious almost-meet-cute. But it should be clear from Lapid’s audaciously confrontational filmic language that we’re not watching a romance: unconventional framings, aggressive whip pans, extreme angles, and disorienting movements proliferate (Ahed’s Knee may be one of the better-directed movies of the year; it is certainly one of the most directed). This is a movie shot in a manner that challenges viewers from the start, and before long the screenwriting too betrays more confrontational intentions.

As it unfolds, the plot begins to hinge quite unexpectedly on a government-produced form the filmmaker is asked to complete about the screening in which he’s asked to categorize its educational and cultural value by claiming his movie touches on one of several governmentally identified and sanctioned themes (e.g., “family,” “the Holocaust”). For the filmmaker, this unassuming piece of paper functions as a token for the insidious way in which the Israeli state constructs identity and narratives of history—and, thereby, systems of power—and so he sets himself on a path of disruption, hatching a plan to expose and exploit what he sees as the Ministry’s abuse of authority. Over the course of the day, the rapport between the filmmaker and the official that first crackles with sexual energy degenerates to a life-shattering (or at least altering) standoff of sorts in which the filmmaker becomes a self-styled anti-fascist crusader as well as a victimizer.

Without spoiling Lapid’s climactic scene, suffice it to say that he scripts a confrontation as brazenly provocative with words as his filmmaking is throughout. Depending on one’s political predilections, this reckoning might come off as exhilarating truth-telling, shrill polemicizing, or appalling offense. Whatever its effect, we shouldn’t conflate the filmmaker’s didacticism with Lapid’s, nor should we conflate the words Lapid’s characters say with the movie’s point-of-view. Ahed’s Knee draws inspiration from a real “Loyalty in Culture” initiative of the Israeli government, just as Lapid clearly draws on his own life experience in sketching the relationship between the filmmaker and his mother. But this is officially a work of fiction and a piece of screenwriting that, despite its speechifying, leaves room for ambiguity and ambivalence.

Structurally, Ahed’s Knee is also too loose and freeform to play strictly as polemic. Lapid breaks from scenes at will for musical interludes that have no apparent connection the main narrative. He gives space for the character to explore the natural wonder of a recently formed lake in the desert and to exchange texts with his sick mother, who serves as a structuring absence throughout. Even the title of Lapid’s movie, in referring to the filmmaker’s future project rather than the screening that dominates its central plot, invites a broader consideration of the movie’s many digressions and the manner in which the political questions it raises are situated sociopolitically, culturally, and in terms of history and identity.

In one of their extended conversations, the filmmaker tells the official a story from his military service decades ago, which Lapid depicts in flashback as the filmmaker narrates it. The harrowing story recounts the bullying, abuse, and trauma the men in his unit inflicted upon one another. As it unfolds, however, there is also a slippage in his account, and the official begins to wonder what role, exactly, the man standing before her actually played in this terrifying incident. As Lapid has done previously in Policeman and Synonyms, he uses the scene to interrogate and problematize a form of toxic Israeli masculinity. His attitude toward complicity, though, is far more complicated, and we might wonder—to the extent that his protagonist stands in for Lapid himself—what we should make of the character in light of this sequence. For all Ahed’s Knee’s apparent didacticism, it is also a film deeply concerned with notions of home, of guilt, and of the ties of blood and mud, with what it means to be both from and of a place. Exhausting and unsettling, Ahed’s Knee provides fewer answers to the questions it poses than it may first appear, but it leaves no doubt that broken systems compromise everyone they touch.