Ahed Knee: Nadav Lapid’s New Provocatve Film (Cannes Fest 2021 Winner)

Narrative Structure:

Y, a celebrated Israeli filmmaker, arrives in a remote desert village to present one of his films at a local library. Struggling to cope with the recent news of his mother’s fatal illness, he is pushed into a spiral of rage when the host of the screening, a government employee, asks him to sign a form placing restrictions on what he can say at the film’s Q&A.

Told over the course of one day, the film depicts Y as he battles against the loss of freedom in his country and the fear of losing
his mother. Lapid wrote the film soon after the death of his own mother, who worked as an editor on many of his works.

This masterfully detailed, complex drama offers a sharp critique of the censorship, hypocrisy, and violence instigated by Israel and repressive governments everywhere. The fact that Lapid’s film was produced, largely funded, and highly acclaimed in Israel highlights the complexities of a national cinema that refuses to be muzzled, born of the divisions of society itself.

Ahed’s Knee was written with a sense of urgency – a feeling that urged me to write, to write it all down, to write fast, right through to the end. It was a feeling that had more control over me than I over it. The film came about from something that happened in June 2018.

I got a call from a woman who introduced herself as the deputy director of Israel’s Libraries, at the Ministry of Culture – she invited me to present my film The Kindergarten Teacher to the Library of Sapir, a tiny, remote village in the region of Arava, at the other end of Israel. There’s a wide desert, few people living there, lots of sand – it’s a place I’d never been before. Over the phone, she sounded unexpectedly young for her position, and very kind. As she tried to answer my questions, she told me how her passion for literature – a passion she developed as a young girl, without any support from her relatives that didn’t like reading – led her to run the local library down the street, and later to hold a position at the Ministry of Culture. She said that over the two previous years libraries had become key cultural centers in villages where you couldn’t find cinemas or theaters. So, the whole cultural, artistic activity was handled by the people in charge of libraries within the ministry of Culture, in other words by herself.

Just before we hung up, she mentioned a form I had to fill out and sign so that my presentation of the film could be greenlit. In addition to some technical info I was supposed to include in the form, I was expected to pick out of a list of topics that of my presentation – and promise to discuss that topic with the audience, and no other. That seemed fishy to me. Especially these days when free speech in Israel has turned into a gloomy winter sun, growing dark and dying. And the leader of that anti-free speech campaign happens to be the minister of Culture herself.

I said to the Libraries’ deputy director, “I assume that the list of topics complies with the topics allowed by the government, and that those people have trouble accepting other people’s
opinions. And that they silence whoever disagrees with them”.
After a short silence, she said to my surprise, “I’m not proud of what I do in this job. For the past two years, they’ve tried to control everything. They can’t stand whoever disagrees with them”.

She immediately begged me to sign the form anyway and to still come to the desert place to present my film to the people in this remote village.

After we hung up, I called a lady friend of mine who works as a reporter for the only high-brow, independent paper left in Israel. She was also surprised by such a straightforward confession coming from a key civil servant, and she asked me if I could record her unbeknownst to her. I thought it was impossible ethically speaking. I pictured how devastating it would inevitably be for the young woman I’d been talking with, once the recording was out in the open. In the best-case scenario, she’d be dismissed from the Ministry of Culture and she’d no longer be eligible to work as a civil servant.

I went down south to Arava. The desert all around me was boundless and empty. What few people I came across were Israelis of a kind I wasn’t familiar with. I signed the form in question.

When I met with the audience, after the screening of the film, I more or less spoke as I usually did. Maybe unconsciously I was getting more careful.

A few months later, the minister of Culture initiated the law of loyalty to culture, forbidding the funding of any artwork deemed unfaithful to the government. This law could be passed at any time. The relative democracy that still prevailed is gradually shrinking. We’re experiencing the end of a certain Israeli mindset – true or false – that I grew up in. This definitely marks the end of Israel as I’ve known it. It could be the inevitable fate of a country ever at war – the fate of a country where everyone, including myself, has experienced war, took part in it, in violence. I don’t have a clue. I’m neither
a historian, nor a sociologist. Oddly enough, artistic free speech has become the key symbol of this collapse.

In the script I wrote, the film director goes down a road I couldn’t possibly take. He’s willing to sacrifice the Libraries’ deputy director to slow down the fast-moving fascist tank. Is he a hero? Or a villain? Is he bringing a disaster on a noble, young woman? On a much more honest, brave woman than he is? Or is he dealing with a cowardly woman, doing a rogue state’s dirty work? In those dark days, isn’t the divide between victims and offenders, the strong and the weak, those higher up and those below, fading? Borders are blurred, we’re all together on the same sinking

Y., the director, is harsh, ruthless, arrogant, hostile, furious. Does his rage make sense politically? Or is it only about cruelty? Or is he only just terribly sad as he faces both the death of his mother – which he cannot avoid – and that of his country, which he may still keep from going under. But deep down he knows – he’s not crazy and noble enough to pull it off.

Words in this film are a texture, a tune. They’re a part and parcel of that world, just like the desert, the sun, loneliness, the feeling of void. They are significant, not only because of their meaning, but also because they’re spoken. Words are like music growing louder and louder. What drives them forward is Y.’s despair, helplessness and sadness that make him go constantly forward without ever stopping – go ever faster and be ever louder.

However, by the end of this crescendo, there’s no room for redemption. Y.’s burning manifestos and frenzied speeches make sense and help keep him from falling down and crying.