Ahed's Knee

With Ahed’s Knee, director Nadav Lapid unleashes his anger

“Lapid remains one of cinema’s greatest working artists, someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and draws on personal passions and anxieties to provoke and inspire audiences.”

Anger runs deep in Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s latest, Ahed’s Knee. The film follows a director, Y (Avshalom Pollak), who visits a small town to present one of his earlier films. Upon arrival, he’s confronted with a form of “permitted” topics of discussion by a sweet, smiling librarian. His mother dies. All hell breaks loose.

Since his first feature film, Policeman, Lapid has been critical of institutions. From the police force to the institution of marriage, he’s had choice words (and images) for the systems that uphold the society he grew up in. His previous film, Synonyms, followed a young Israeli who finds his way to Paris in the hopes of leaving his home and language behind. As he becomes more deeply ingrained in Parisian society, though, the imperialist violence of the nation-state shows its ugly face. In a citizenship class, students sing la Marseillaise, “Qu’un sang impur/Abreuve nos sillons!” (May impure blood/Water our fields!)

As Ahed’s Knee begins, a young woman rides a motorcycle to a film audition. She’s vying for the lead in a film based on the life of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, immortalized by a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier after her cousin was shot in the head by a rubber bullet and put in a medically induced coma. This opening sequence, intercut with archival and news footage of Tamimi, sets the stage for the film, a defiantly political act that engages with civic responsibility against an oppressive regime. 

Lapid’s influences as a filmmaker are vast, from the French New Wave to Abbas Kiarostami. Lines are blurred, and conventions are challenged formally and aesthetically. The movie’s first act, in particular, breaks down expected conventions; it’s a movie about movies. It utilizes montage to deconstruct how art can engage in conversation with the dominant culture and the failure of artists to take moral stands. Y, as an avatar for Lapid, can be a rather unflattering doppelganger who is both ruthless and ravenous, driven by anger as much as a sense of moral fortitude. 

The movie’s relatively linear structure (a filmmaker arrives to present a film, he uses it as an opportunity to confront state violence/censorship) is continually interrupted by flashbacks, musical sequences and almost Grecian monologues. The filmmaking keeps us on our toes by destabilizing the narrative, allowing for interruptions and propagandistic parodies to challenge political persuasions. The complexity of the film’s structure also gives way to complex portrayals of individuals who are defined less by their surface-level values than the ones that run skin deep. The film examines the insidious nature of soft power and how “niceness” and “beauty” are weaponized to uphold violence. 

Watching Ahed’s Knee is not always a pleasant experience. It’s marked by periods of boredom and uncertainty. If ever there was a contemporary film that felt like an act of passion, this is it. It’s a movie that feels made in a whirlwind of strong emotions and half-formed ideas. It harkens back to late-’60s Godard and Pasolini. The deconstruction of the cinematic form becomes just another way of dismantling the voices and power structures of the dominant culture. Lapid engages with his responsibility as an artist to initiate social change and the failure of cinema as a political tool. It’s a movie that is as personal as a cultural reckoning. 

Lapid remains one of cinema’s greatest working artists, someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and draws on personal passions and anxieties to provoke and inspire audiences. His movies are undeniably fuelled by an almost youthful passion for dialogue and ideas, even at their most abstract. Watching them feels like witnessing the act of creation itself. Ahed’s Knee reveals a messy, self-deprecating, aspirational and transgressive process that reveals an artist continually re-inventing himself. ■

Ahed’s Knee (Directed by Nadav Lapid)

Ahed’s Knee is playing in Montreal theatres now.

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