‘Ahed’s Knee’ offers a self-reflective critique of Israel

The film is a blistering release valve for critical political sentiment

click to enlarge Avshalom Pollak and Nur Fibak in Ahed’s Knee. - Kino Lorber
Kino Lorber
Avshalom Pollak and Nur Fibak in Ahed’s Knee.

Following a body of work that's never shied from the political, Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid's latest, Ahed's Knee, offers up his most unvarnished critiques yet of his native government. By working in autofiction, centering his work on a filmmaker as eager to address the weight and injustice of Israeli occupation as he, Lapid's critiques are stated as plainly as possible while still keeping this work within a space of fiction.

But he does so just barely, toying with distance and closeness to expand his lens into spaces of more personal, self-questioning work that lends a needed intimacy to the film's often abstracted statements on geopolitics. What's born from this is an examination of the tensions between artistic ego and humility, conscience and ambition, personal vanity and empathetic concern, and what's suggested by the film's finish is that all of them are necessary for the production of good work — with each trait presenting itself as much in dialogue as the aesthetic stylings of the film itself.

By employing a rough authorial stand-in via the figure of Y (an acerbic filmmaker and video artist played by choreographer Avshalom Pollak), Lapid spotlights a character whose political convictions are undergirded as much by his own self-regard as they are of genuine political and humanitarian concern. The film opens with a music video-like performance for a work Y's shooting, inspired by the work of a real-life Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, who serves as both a vital artistic counterpoint to Y's own work and a narrative frame that manages to haunt the film. Despite the force of that excerpt's brief grip on the film's opening minutes, Ahed's Knee is mostly about Israeli artists and officials in the absence of Palestinian voices. By addressing Tamimi as a point of contrast, Lapid critically presents the conflict with the myopic but well-intentioned perspective of his main Israeli characters as a guide. Operating with a sense of significantly reduced stakes, these characters approach the Israeli occupation as an inconvenient aesthetic, political, and ethical quandary in which those like them — with structural advantages over the occupied Palestinian people — can adamantly pretend to resolve.

Moving intermittently between Y's home of Tel Aviv and the more remote, open-desert setting of Arava, Ahed's Knee finds its lead preparing to present work at a small library — but with some paperwork presented by Israel's cultural ministry that he has to sign first. In presenting him with a list of permitted topics (which pointedly omit Palestinian and more broadly non-Jewish concerns), this list of allowed subject matter constitutes a barely masked, pernicious form of bureaucratic censorship which Y rails relentlessly against.

Monologuing either into his phone or to a sympathetic but constrained deputy minister in Yahalom (an ever-torn Nur Fibak), Y's emotional bandwidth shifts mostly between fury and frustration: just responses to state political repression. (For those Americans concerned about actual censorship — a rarity — the contours of this might merit a closer look, as would cases where related measures curbing speech critical of Israel arise here.) Y's grasp on the film — and nearly all its frames — marinates his modest action in a deep sense of outrage, making the film a blistering release valve for critical political sentiment.

Between his smoldering outbursts, though, Y cuts loose in freer ways: whether jamming to music piped through his boxy headphones or leaving diaristic voice messages for his cancer-stricken mother (never seen on screen), there's a level of mystery to Y's inner life which Lapid seems happy to preserve. With most of the film focuses on his movements through dunes, arid landscapes, and, at one point, a desert oasis, the feel of Ahed's Knee as a vision quest dangles over its proceedings, even as the sorts of climactic revelations that might imply prove largely deferred. Instead, Lapid leaves us with an examination of the life of the mind, a struggle against both internal and outwardly imposed forms of repression.

To this end: even as cinematographer Shai Goldman's desert vistas largely position Y amid a landscape made up of neighboring, bright but largely muted hues, his whiplash camerawork strains against this same environment. With single shots darting to closeups of physical or environmental detail (most noticeably Y's extremities during a standout dance sequence amid the open desert), Lapid expresses an appetite for the erratic and uncontrolled. Echoing the film's thematic preoccupations, these formal gestures make Ahed's Knee's monologue-driven action feel internal in a way that's welcome, cutting through its air of musing abstraction with a more heated emotional core.

This balance is delicate, and in many ways comprises the film's subject: Ahed's Knee is about nothing so much as the challenges and psychic requirements of making charged political art. In 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 with injustice seem palpably sincere, he also speaks from the position of privileged distance that those upset by lopsided geopolitics so often do: something Lapid's film could be accused of as well. While Tamimi's presence on the film's periphery provides a brief flicker of the more concrete stakes of the conflict (as the film notes, she was jailed as a teenager for striking — and not injuring — an Israeli soldier), what Y suffers in state repression manages as easily to retain significance as it does to pale in comparison with her own struggles. "They're hitting us in the wallet," says Y at one point regarding state-imposed curbs on his work, "making us buy the cheapest brands." Compared to incarceration, such gripes seem laughable even as they plainly matter, given political speech's role as a cornerstone of effective activism.

Even while highlighting these disparities and questioning the various limits of his own power in producing salutary political work, Lapid highlights the damage done to all citizens in suppressing expression that supports the marginalized, or that criticizes governments in power. In fighting this, Benjamin Netanyahu's government robbed all in the region and some beyond of a fundamental right, whether militarily or through more quiet bureaucratic means.

While speaking out about this might sound at least thematically simple or politically obvious, it's Lapid's self-awareness about his work that elevates Ahed's Knee as a welcome artistic, as well as political, text. In being self-reflexive — and so personally self-questioning — the film obtains a rich sense of ambiguity that would rarely be found in a screed.

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