By Maor Goihberg
In the past few years, there have been many autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) films released, perhaps due to a need to put our times into focus: some, like Belfast, focus on the director’s life as a young child; others, like The Fablemans, focus more on the director’s maturation and the beginnings of their career.
Then there are those movies that the director uses not as a conduit for the past, but as a mirror for their present. This is the case with Ahed’s Knee, directed by the Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, who previously won the Golden Bear at Berlin for Synonyms, another personal film; but while that film was inspired by his young adulthood, here he takes a look at himself in the now (winning the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021).
The film begins with a deeply captivating shot, as we are pulled through Tel Aviv on a motorcycle whose presence we only hear, while the camera gazes upwards at the streetlamps and towers, raindrops blurring and distorting these artificial giants, until we tilt and pan down to earth, and stare directly at the faceless driver in whose way we now stand.
It is that kind of cinematic verve that Lapid infuses this first sequence, a total command of pacing and perspective that justifies the use of long but energetic takes. It turns out our driver was heading to an audition, and yet still we do not see her face, only her kneecap in increasing closeups–well, until she starts to sing.
The director, only known as Y (Avshalom Pollack), is currently preparing to shoot a movie about Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian girl who was the subject of a great controversy a few years earlier. In the meantime, however, he is invited to a small town in the desert to screen one of his other films at the modest local library.
Upon arrival, Y is not greeted by the mayor or any such dignitary, but by an official from the Ministry of Culture, Yahalom (Nur Fibak), who during their first meeting gives Y a list of state-approved topics from which to check off what categorizes his film. But despite the overt commentary on display, Lapid’s gaze is unfocused, the camera tilting on occasion for no reason other than curiosity.
Y himself is quite unfocused, stuck a little inside his head. Walking through the cold, wintery desert, sporting a pair of headphones and happily listening to a bit of music, he is suddenly (but quite smoothly) transported back to the streets of Tel Aviv, before a phone call rings him back to Israel’s unpromising reality.
“The way things are going,” warns one colleague, “beat it to Paris or New York.” Indeed, Y is very much concerned about his future in the country, wondering whether he’ll be able to find funding for his project. In one of the film’s most haunting scenes, Y dives into a small pond, and confronts the skeleton of a ram that couldn’t swim.
If the present is anxious, and the future so despairing, then Y attempts to look back to the past: but the problem is, his past provides no relief. He recounts to Yahalom recollections of increasingly bizarre events when he was a soldier, from a party with his army comrades, to motivational speeches they received, and finally a near-death experience when on duty.
But while his recollections grow more incredulous, they also become less absorbing, as bare as the walls of the bunker that he claimed to have been trapped in. When Y gives an emotional speech decrying the country and its arrogance, there is a tint of hollowness that rings as loudly as his sincerity, almost as if he is aware that his grievance is also with himself.
Y is shown to be capable of turning his detachment and pessimism into cruelty, rivaling the actions of the protagonist in one of his previous works, the gut wrenching The Kindergarten Teacher. Lapid seems to wonder just how far he may go in protest, of the culture, the state, and of himself, perhaps more than he may initially have believed.
Pollack gives a very introspective performance, a slightly worn-out and yet energetic director who is no longer sure of his place, his career, and his sense of identity. Fibak manages a fine line, as a person whose optimistic outlook can only sustain itself so much, and therefore is as vulnerable to deep emotional cuts as anyone.
Cinematographer Shai Goldman demonstrates not only total control over the camera, but also an eye for the use of light and shadow, taking advantage of the desert sun as much as he does the city rain. The colors are sometimes a little washed-out, yet vibrant all the same, a director’s imagination contrasting with unwelcoming surroundings.
Lapid noted during a Q&A at Lincoln Center that while the Israeli Ministry of Culture was credited for its backing, they only contributed 2,000 euros to the production of the film. A few weeks ago, a movement of Israeli filmmakers boycotted the Israel Cinema Project, the largest fund in the country, until the Rabinovich Foundation removed a requirement for applicants to pledge not to harm the name of the country. Interesting times.