Ahed’s Knee: Nadav (Synonyms) Lapid’s Latest Blistering Provocation (Cannes Film Fest 2021)

Ever Since his film debut, Emile’s Girlfriend (2006), Nadav Lapid’s work has sought to make sense of Israeli society and culture–specifically, the country’s ever-increasing authoritarianism.
His critical cinematic probes attempt to articulate the confusions and arguments that prevail in Israel as a relatively new state, though highly divided along racial, ethnic, social class, and religious lines.
Having won Berlin’s Golden Bear with Synonyms in 2019, Lapid has become the most renowned Israeli filmmaker of his generation.
His latest film, Ahed’s Knee, is a blistering meta-work that Lapid had shot during the pandemic, this time around addressing censorship concerns head-on.
This personal film is based on an the experience Lapid had in 2018, when he was invited to introduce The Policeman in Araba, a remote region in the north of the country.
It began with phone conversation he had with a local woman who was working for the ministry of culture.During their conversation she expressed misgivings about the state in surprisingly frank terms. A journalist friend of Lapid then suggested that he record the woman in secret and release it publicly to the press, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Ahed’s Knee follows a filmmaker named Y (played by Avshalom Pollak), who is on his way out to Araba for the purpose of screening his film.

Upon arrival, Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a rather attractive woman who works for the ministry, shows him around his accommodation.

Enamored with Yahalom, Lapid has the director namedrop classic cinema in order to impress her.

Is Y a womanizer, like many other Israeli males?  Is he fully aware of his own digressions? Is he ready to admit his own fallibility?

In one scene, he is seen checking Tinder, where he flirts with a married woman. He also catches the eyes of a young hitchhiker, but she passes on the ride. Later on, he takes a queasy interest in Yahalom’s much younger sister.

As noted, Ahed’s Knee is also a meta-film about the process of filmmaking.

In the beginning Y is involved in a project about Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian protester who, at 16, was imprisoned for slapping an Israeli police officer who attempted to raid her house.

Lapid opens his story with a casting session and close-ups of various knees of different shapes and sizes.  He views this particular body part as representing an ambiguous duality, a symbol of both strength (when the knee stands firm on the ground) and fragility (when it shakes and trembles, albeit for different reasons).

We learn that Y’s own radicalization is the result of an elaborate hazing ritual during his military service, a powerful scene shown in flashback (similar scene was used in Lapid’s previous film, Synonyms).

The figure of Y’s mother, who is suffering from lung cancer, becomes more prominent as the plot unfolds. Ahed’s Knee pays tribute to Lapid’s own mother, who died around the time he was editing Synonyms.  Before screening his movie, he quotes her saying “In the end, geography wins, but not necessarily in a good way.”

Walking with Yahalom while the film screens, Y’s frustrations build to a searing point as he slams the government’s new “loyalty” laws.

The film’s predominant tone is grim, perhaps reflecting the director’s own despair. That mood is as arid and spare as the surrounding Araba landscape. Visually, Lapid contrasts the flat geography with Yahalom’s more colorful floral dresses.

The camera flicks back and forth, showing on the one side the barren wastes of dissent, and on the other the comforts of compliance.

End Note

A highlight of the 2021 Cannes Film Fest Competition, Ahed’s Knee won one of the Jury’s Special Prizes.