By James Lattimer
Published in Cinema Scope #88 (Fall 2021)
Nadav Lapid continues to take a scalpel to contemporary Israel in Ahed’s Knee, although this particular dissection might leave a bigger scar. The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) and Synonyms (2019) already flirted with autobiography, but his fourth feature pushes forward into full autofiction, sending a director named Y. (Avshalom Pollak) to the Arava desert for a screening of one of his films, only to discover that open discussion of its content is frowned upon. The director’s response may be blunt, even strident, but the film’s own approach to perspective is far more nuanced, as Lapid’s state-of-the-nation ideas are refracted through Shai Goldman’s agitated, intricate camerawork to exhilarating effect. As Y. himself remarks at the beginning of the screening, pay attention to the style.
As he heads to the desert, Y. is in the midst of the casting process for a new project, a video piece called The Knee of Ahed Tamini. In 2017, a Palestinian girl named Ahed Tamini was filmed slapping a couple of Israeli soldiers in response to the shooting of her cousin. The resultant viral video provoked admiration, but also ire, including that of far-right politician Bezalel Smotrich, who suggested on Twitter that Tamini be shot in the knee. As Y. sits in the military plane taking him from Tel Aviv to Sapir, he asks the pilot if he can film the landscape from the cockpit with his iPhone, which becomes the first in a series of video messages he sends to his mother, who writes the screenplays for his films and is suffering from lung cancer.
Upon his arrival, the woman who invited Y. is waiting for him at his accommodation. Deputy Director of the Division of Public Libraries at the Ministry of Culture, Yahalom (Nur Fibak) is intelligent, attractive, and a fan of his films; she’s flown from Jerusalem especially for the screening, but she’s from the Arava originally. They strike up a semi-flirtatious conversation that will continue across much of the film and form the bulk of its narrative, which is split into a first section conducted in the apartment and a second before and during the screening, which is held at the library in Sapir that was set up by Yahalom.
The pair’s first exchange is already unusually intimate, as they probe each other about their backgrounds, during which Yahalom proves herself to be far less guarded than Y., who comes across as self-absorbed and conceited, wetting his hair under the tap to provocative effect and boasting about his knowledge of film history. He also bristles when she mentions the form he will have to fill in (a precondition for the payment for his appearance), wherein the Ministry stipulates which subjects can be addressed in the Q&A: needless to say, the “abject dumbing-down of society,” as he describes the theme of his film, isn’t on the list. Yahalom’s tacit affirmation of his disapproval might be due to politeness, attraction, or even genuine feeling; either way, it will come back to haunt her. The various tensions running through the conversation are only amplified by the camerawork, whose tendency to jump between different perspectives imparts an extra-fidgety charge: there are close-ups of the duo’s faces from different positions and angles, wider shots that also take in the apartment and the desert landscape outside, convulsive shakes that turn the image into a blur, and sudden swoops across the ceiling and out through the terrace to capture the dust particles in the air.
If Ahed’s Knee is a two-hander at heart, the interlude between its two largest sections could be read as further scene-setting before the main event (aside from a phone conversation with a friend who suggests Y. try to capitalize on Yahalom’s moment of indiscretion). Progression does indeed occur at the level of form, however, as the same frenetic camera swoops and rapid shifts in perspective now begin to bend reality. As Y. ambles toward the water-filled crevasse that serves as a local landmark, listening to music on his headphones and grooving in the lunar landscape, he is suddenly, inexplicably, transported back to Tel Aviv continuing the same moves, before a cut deposits him back in the desert. Later, as he is driven to the library, the camera first rifles through the interior of the car before the driver gets out, walks toward some house in the desert, enters, and proceeds to dance with abandon to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” (which was already playing on the car radio) until another abrupt cut returns him to the car and seeming normality.
These perspectival shifts are employed so regularly, and draw such attention to themselves, that they raise the question of whose subjectivity they represent, particularly as the ornate interweaving of the editing and the instinctive-feeling camera movements always feels embodied. The camera is most frequently aligned with Y. himself, albeit in different ways: directly, when it reproduces his POV or via the video messages he sends to his mother, or indirectly, as in the audition/film scenes or the dance number with the driver, both of which seem to stem from his imagination in some shape or form. (“Lovely Day” apparently features in the film about to screen at the library too.)
Yet Y. periodically appears in the frame himself at precisely those points when the film seems most subjective. These fleeting moments suggest that there is another organizing presence at work, someone whose perspective largely overlaps with that of Y. yet is distinct from it nonetheless—another director directing the director whom one could regard as Lapid himself, although maybe “Lapid” is just another layer of the fiction. This crafty, subtle incongruity of perspective can be read as a formal pendant to the parallels that the narrative establishes between Y. and Lapid, which incorporate both self-deprecation and a similar degree of slippage. To wit: Y. and Lapid both like filming dance sequences; their last films both premiered in Berlin; and Y.’s mother is suffering from lung cancer, which is also what Lapid’s mother passed away from (although she was his editor, not his screenwriter). Like all good autofictions, Ahed’s Knee not only dwells in the gap between autobiography and invention but also thrives on the resultant uncertainty, which muddies the film’s precise position in turn.
The second section of Y. and Yaholom’s conversation is conducted on a desert walk during the film screening, and explicitly addresses this uncertainty of perspective. Y. recounts a sadistic initiation ritual that he observed during his military service many years previously, whereby new recruits must go to shockingly extreme measures to prove their loyalty to the nation (which is depicted from a range of familiarly fragmented perspectives and ushered in with a by-now de rigueur dance sequence). It’s only when the screening is ending, and after Yaholom has recovered her composure after hearing the harrowing story (as well as Y.’s subsequent bile-filled invective toward her employer), that she begins to question Y.’s position within that story, just before all hell breaks loose. Was he really the observer, as he claimed, the petrified one who fled? Or was he perhaps the devil directing the entire scenario?
For some audiences—not least those belonging to the Israeli (cultural) establishment—Y., and by extension Lapid, will likely be seen as the latter, based on the brutal directness of his arguments in the film’s closing stages (although keeping things vaguer would feel disingenuous). Either way, given that Israel’s Ministry of Culture partially funds his films, Lapid is remarkably unafraid to bite the hand that feeds him. Yet taking this view would also be to dismiss the scrupulous attention that Lapid has paid to allowing perspectives to proliferate and overlap across the film, including those of the Palestinian activist, the savage right-wing politician, the naïve, compromised functionary, the actress yearning to empathize, the fearful soldier, the angry mob, the inexplicably forgiving sister, and the mournful son bidding farewell to his mother, who seems also to represent the country. One of them happens to embody a perverse optimism: that of the irrepressible filmmaker, who sees inspiration all around him, even in the rotting bell peppers that litter the ground.