You don’t always think about the basic rules of filmmaking until you’re watching something that is purposefully and defiantly breaking them. “Ahed’s Knee,” an Israeli-French-German co-production directed by Nadav Lapid and set for American release early next year by Kino Lorber, is one such film. There’s seemingly no limit here to where the camera can move. Sometimes it’s dizzyingly exciting. Other times, it’s just dizzying. Extreme close-ups of actors’ body parts, hyperactive focus shifts and scenes that appear completely disconnected from what came before them make up much of the film’s grammar.
The “Ahed” of the title is Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian girl who at age 16 was arrested for slapping an Israeli soldier in retaliation for her cousin being shot in the head. She served an eight-month sentence, but Deputy Knesset Speaker Bezalel Smotrich from the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party said she should have been shot in the knee. “Ahed’s Knee” isn’t really about Tamimi, though, but a filmmaker known as “Yud” (“Y” in the English subtitles, played by Avishom Pollak) who is developing a video art piece about Tamimi.
Yud is obviously meant to be a stand-in for Nadav Lapid himself, and the real meat of the story is based on Lapid’s own experiences with the Israeli Ministry of Culture. Yud is invited by Ministry of Culture library director Yahalom (Nur Fibak) to introduce a screening of one of his older films in the Arava Valley. Before he can speak to the public, however, Yud has to fill out paperwork stating which from a number of pre-selected sanitized topics he can say his film is about. If he breaks from the approved list and expresses the anger he truly feels about the Israeli government, society and his wish to “destroy everything always,” he faces the threat of being blacklisted. Yahalom is a fan of Yud’s work and ultimately agrees with him, but still has to do her job on behalf of a censorious agency.
Ironically, the Ministry of Culture that “Ahed’s Knee” so heavily criticizes ended up funding the film. How did Lapid get away with it? Maybe it’s due to the more moderate Hili Tropper replacing Miri Regev, the former minister whom “Ahed’s Knee” has been read as a specific condemnation of. Maybe the ministry decided the most productive way to respond to Lapid’s allegations of censorship was to support his free speech in making his complaints. Or maybe it’s simply safer to voice controversial opinions through the lens of fiction than to state them directly.
Lapid doesn’t seem to have been censored in promoting “Ahed’s Knee,” but it is worth noting that in his introduction at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, he never actually says what he thinks the film is about, instead listing off the many contradictory things other people have said it’s about.
The winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (tied with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria”), “Ahed’s Knee” is often captivating, especially in its use of pop music and in the impassioned back-and-forth arguments between Yud and Yahalom. It’s also incredibly overwhelming and not particularly enjoyable to watch. I respect it and appreciate its depth of both thought and emotion, but it’s not a film I expect to revisit.