Ahed’s knee

Barren Land

Nadav Lapid, after having been awarded the Golden Bear for Synonyms, “returns” to Paris from Israel with one of the most personal movies of the last decade, being both a human being’s and an artist’s internal journey of self-examination, as well as a radical political manifest questioning the notion of patriotism. The return to the motherland also becomes the return to the language which has been strongly disavowed in the previous movie. The tools of expression which have been used before, displaying the characteristics of metaphors and intellectual games, are here replaced by an expressive vortex, which hasn’t been, however, void of symbolism. Although the screenplay has been completed in less than a fortnight, it’s clear of serendipity and slip-ups, which is even more flabbergasting once the very limited budget of the project and the resulting improvisational load are taken into account.

The linearity of the plot becomes the background for the narrative vector pointed at the main protagonist, his interactions with the world and the political context. Military memories, again as palpable as they’re deceiving, have already become the artist’s trademark and been described as an unhealable wound. The starting point of the story is the case of Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian activist, who in 2017, after her brother had been shot during a riot, slapped an Israeli soldier, for which she had spent eight months in prison. The titular knee, however, pertains to a Twitter entry made by an ultra conservative lawyer, Bezalel Smotrich, which read: “In my opinion, she should’ve at least received a bullet in her knee. That would force her into lifelong house arrest.” Such words, unmasking the disproportionate cruelty of radical Zionists, have been turned by the artist into an incentive to criticize the entire system.

Lapid puts Y (Avshalom Polak), his alter ego being a recognized director who’s working on a movie about Tamimi, at the center of the story. Y is a man in the middle of an existential crisis, who has once drawn inspiration from the night lights, but now does so from the grittiness of the morning. During a break between auditions, he flies to Sappir, a small Israeli village, where – at the local library – the screening of his earlier movie is going to take place. Upon his arrival, he’s greeted by Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a woman working at the Ministry of Culture who’s responsible for popularizing art across this quite bizarre region whose population equals that of an average Israeli street. Both he, unapproachable and uncompromising, and she, gullible and blindly following the censorship laws enacted by her government, will soon become the pawns in a game commandeered by an artist on a warpath. Indeed, while watching a movie about making one, we witness the latter materialize – it’s a genius technique only Lapid is capable of incorporating.

Y, similarly to Yoav from Synonyms, is the sum of the master’s frustrations. The discontent with the motherland, instead of passing completely, has been exacerbated and taken the form of a whirlwind. Together with the director, we step across a barren land, scorched by the Sun, on which nothing is to take root. Literally, it’s the desert of Sappir, but metaphorically – the spirit of Israel. The blade of anger is pointed at not only the government, which – under the guise of values – turns even more nationalistic, racist and xenophobic, but also the freedom of speech and creation. The citizens, the following generations of whom are enslaved by their inertia and let themselves be led on an increasingly shorter leash, are to blame, as well. They form a nation propped up by the pillars of the past, which may have put it onto the historical map of the world, but now, they need to be reflected upon and redefined. Here, and everywhere else, war is a means of staying in power. Whereas the obedience and servitude form signed by the artists, being tantamount to a humiliating pact with the Devil, becomes the symbol of shackles boding the question: who is an artist curbed by the rules of political correctness? Slandering the motherland leads to the proverbial death of hunger and mandatory banishment, as well as is rightfully compared to the reverberating PRL (Polish People’s Republic) slogan that any hand raised at the governing body needs to be hacked off. As far as this matter is concerned, Lapid’s work is consistent and cohesive. Policeman, his 2011 debut movie, has already touched upon the issue of internal struggle and it being brutally contained by the state apparatus. However, in the context of the role of art in structuring awareness and critical thinking, the echoes of The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) are heard. As soon as the culture, which is considered the pillar of humanity, is faced with systemic violence, it becomes vulnerable, and the poets are sentenced to “extinction”. And yet, the artist places the director at the very center, rendering him the one whose duty is to fight using at least words. At the same time, what can’t go unnoticed is the smoldering hope, embodied on-screen by the face of a giggling child, which symbolizes the future, change and the time necessary for the revolutionary awareness to be born.

The story about soldiers and cyanide, which Y tells Yahalom at a certain point in the movie, serves as a parallel to the artist’s relations with the governing body of the country. It fuels the deliberation on the issue of patriotism. Can criticism be identified as treason and should it evoke the feeling of remorse as we’re blackening our birthplace? Who is Y, really? Another victim of the system? The one propagating the ideas of freedom and diversity? Or maybe the villain tormented by regrets? Everyone at once? The devil and the liberator who’s going to be stoned by his own people? This explosive concoction simply crumbles the frame of the screen just to inject us into the protagonist’s soul with force rarely seen at the cinema. What awaits at the end of the path is redemption, which entails accepting internal anger as an emotion, opportunism as the building block of a new value, and – last but not least – one’s own sensitivity and goodness, all of which constitute human attributes.

Lapid’s story of his personal struggle with the passing of his mother, who edited almost all his previous movies, has been interwoven into this political manifesto. Y uses his mobile phone to record a video of the sun-scorched vista, and then, sends messages to an absent addressee. The anger mixes with pain, longing and a time to which there’s no going back, but which has been key. There’s courage in being so emotionally exposed – maybe one that’s greater than that needed to criticize the government. The director takes his foot off the accelerator by countering his own anger with kindness and nostalgia. The cathartic role of art reverberates fully.

Ahed’s Knee, the winner of the Jury’s Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is, first of all, a movie that assaults the senses and gives the audience an almost claustrophobic experience of being grabbed by the throat. Fleeing the cinema is as impossible as having a relaxing movie screening. Time after time, we’re being ejected out of the comfort zone. In order for us to catch a breath and stay in balance, from time to time, the director sways us lyrically with music, certain experiences, subtle references to love and women, as well as brilliant, but also somewhat dark, sense of humor, which is so typical of him. Both the shaky picture and the trademark shots of the sky amplify the feeling of being sucked into a different space-time continuum which is filled with pain, open wounds, and, first and foremost, anger. One needs to boast a strong artistic self-awareness in order to use such tools of expression and let oneself be so exposed, without becoming grotesque. After all, even when Lapid is completely direct, he manages to escape the triviality of being literal. He’s able to achieve this due to the structure of the screenplay, but also thanks to the cinema language which he’s known for. The emotional and political cleansing, which we and he go through, is free of entitlement, and the authenticity that flows out of it not only provides us with vital energy and a breath of fresh air, but also offers a borderline experience which stays with us long after the screen fades to black.

Ahed’s Knee / Ha’berech
Nadav Lapid / France, Israel, Germany / 2021
cast: Avshalom Polak, Nur Fibak, Yoram Honig

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