Ahed’s Knee is an expressionistic work of subjective ruptures and discontinuities that attempts to give complete satisfaction to human reason.
If Nadav Lapid is a provocateur, who or what is he provoking? In one reading of his films, Lapid continually oscillates between thesis and antithesis, pausing only to prove in forceful litanies and aesthetic extremes the dead-end insularity of the Israeli state and its crimes — the implications of which Lapid does not spare himself from. Given this, it was only a matter of time before he ended up with a scenario like the one in Ahed’s Knee: a filmmaker (Avshalom Pollak) and a government representative (Nur Fibak) go for a walk in the desert. By the time they return, both have been unmasked.
Political context and allegory are certainly not alien to Ahed’s Knee, but using this lens fails to admit that these events are not what really “happens” in Lapid’s films. Further, the words of his characters, however neatly they might fit into an idea of what Lapid believes, are never presented in such a way that we might mistake them for a simple truth. Take for instance what some have called the autofictional aspects of the filmmaker character in Ahed’s Knee. As the credits refer to him only with the initial Y, we can recognize this as continuing Lapid’s established conventions. (Y also refers to the filmmaker in From the Diary of a Wedding Photographer, while characters rooted in Lapid’s youth and early adulthood in The Kindergarten Teacher and Synonyms have been named Yoav.)
Y’s last film premiered at Berlin. He wants to make a film about the Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian woman who became known to the public after she slapped an Israeli soldier in the face. And he finds Israeli complacency to be not merely galling but the ultimate source of its violence. Perhaps these things are all true of Lapid. And perhaps the rest of the film could then be collapsed into the field of autofictional commentary, with Y as Lapid’s stand-in and the episodes he encounters — an oasis in the desert, a dialogue with and then a beration of the representative for the Ministry of Culture, a screening of his film — as segments of a one-man show. But in addition to the use of rote details, autofiction is the total immersion into a closed field of subjectivity. Lapid’s approach is to leave us with little recourse but to recoil from Y’s animus and misogyny; the character’s solipsism is intensely developed and then left behind.
The filmmaker’s confrontation of the government representative is, then, fantastically heightened but also mitigated. Lapid surely knows better than anyone what to make of how his films can continue to receive funding from Israeli government sources. His film’s effectiveness then, might be instructively compared to that of his first feature, the well-received but poorly conceived Policeman. In that film, a militarized enforcement unit and a small group of Israeli leftists are placed on an equal plane, and converge in the latter’s plot to take the billionaire members of a wedding party hostage. The film earned Lapid the description of a “dialectical” filmmaker, but since his follow-up, The Kindergarten Teacher, there has been an ongoing attempt to move beyond this play of mere ideas: not just the limits of considering one side and then another, but also the self-satisfied move of resorting to some all-revealing metaphor. In Ahed’s Knee, a rotting bell pepper, or in Synonyms, a bolted door.
In Lapid’s films then, principles are not found in the recording of what people say. They might not even be found in the full context of the statement. Above all, it is a matter of the camera’s position. In Ahed’s Knee, the camera thrashes around Y as if it is trying to shake off a deep slumber. It often swivels between one detail, and then another, and then another, in a wonderfully fallible, yet exacting, tracing of sensory collection. And in a move that is perhaps the dominant shot of Lapid’s last three features, the camera will move as if a record of a subjective encounter, only to then separate, refusing to realign with what we might have thought we were seeing.
If in Policeman Lapid’s narrative split ended up in a dead end of skeptical despair, his work since has seemed to give up any claims to unity. Ahed’s Knee may be grounded in autobiographical detail: as in all of his films, the knot of complicity tied in Israel’s mandatory military service looms larger than its character’s culture-censor diatribes. Despite its breaks from safe transcriptions of style, arthouse or otherwise, it includes a conspicuous dance sequence or two. And yet Lapid’s tendency, even and especially in those more legible moments, is to travel not to the argument or the universal claim, but to the flux of experience. Despite the charged context, the film’s subjective ruptures and discontinuities are not meant to convey a sense of political deadlock or contradiction, but are, ultimately, an intuitive attempt to give complete satisfaction to human reason.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.