Head Shoulders Knees and Toes; Political Repression, so it Goes



Written in a mere fifteen days and then filmed in eighteen, Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid (SynonymsThe Kindergarten Teacher) breaks from his previously more conventional (if no less poignant) form for the fevered outburst that is Ahed’s Knee (Ha’berech).  

Avshalom Pollak portrays a middle-aged filmmaker called Y, a cinema artist currently with the volatility level of nitro glycerin.  Rightly outraged by the plight of a teenage protester who was seen online confronting an Israeli soldier, then, after being detained, had her knee shattered as a consequence, has responded the only way he knows how: by making a personal film.  When said film is booked to screen in a remote Israeli library, Y is confronted by the personable Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a representative of the state tasked with making sure the director literally signs off on what topics he will cover during his Q&A session after the film.  Yahalom and Y get along well enough before their relationship spirals amid increasingly tense political debate.  As his film plays, Y wanders the surrounding rough, sunbaked desert terrain, the official form still pending.  

When Yahalom approaches him in hopes of getting that bit of bureaucracy buttoned up, the resulting confrontation is truly hobbling.  That the greying Y is the very imposing presence of the cliché toxically masculine figure is furiously raging in the face of the young, vulnerable Yahalom makes for a truly kinetic confrontation.  That the narrative casts him as the oppressed and her as the agent of said oppression makes this sequence extra difficult.  The way Lapid captures it- a dizzying long take of Pollak literally shouting down the lens- makes it a punch to the senses.  It really does come down to the pressurized uncorking of a lava-burst of political rage.  The prolonged moment is both a not-unexpected character climax and a rant exposed from beneath the veneer of the entire rest of Ahed’s Knee.  

Whatever cultural weight the observation may carry, it should be stated that Ahed’s Knee bears a somewhat eerie psychic connection to B.J. Novak’s Vengeance (2022).  Although that film is American rather than Israeli, both are boisterous screeds all about the blatant verbal takedown/examination of emerging real-world nationalism (as opposed to patriotism) within the peoples and governments of their own countries.  Both center on alienated middle-aged men who work within media communications.  Both culminate in volatile confrontations in remote areas.  And both seek to challenge their nation’s current pronounced arrogance and authoritarianism.  

At the time of this writing, it is still unknown as to whether anyone will actually see Vengeance.  Ahed’s Knee may suffer the silent treatment in various parts of the world, though it does wield the distinction of having garnered critical acclaim and even seven nominations for 2021 Awards of the Israeli Film Academy, including Best Picture and Best Director.  It went on to win none of those, but still, the fact that such an outwardly critical and defiant film such as this could not only happen at all but thrive as it has in the authoritarian climate in which it was hatched is remarkable.  (It is highly doubtful that B.J. Novak’s film will net similar results).  (Perhaps more prestigiously, Ahed’s Knee did win the Jury Prize at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.  It was also in competition for the Palme d’Or).

The whys and wherefores of exactly how an aggressive, angry film such as Ahed’s Knee is green lit, partially funded, and even lauded by the very system that it’s designed to loudly protest is covered to some extent in the taped Q&A bonus feature.  Yes, it’s a post-screening Q&A for a film that hinges on what can and can’t be said during a post-screening Q&A- though that amusing angle manages not to come up in the seventy-five-minute conversation.  The screening occurred at Lincoln Center in New York City in early 2022, which included Lapid, and also features for some reason, a prominent Iranian film historian.  It’s a fine Blu-ray edition that is more than able to visually reconcile the handheld chaotic style of which Lapid makes heavy use, a technique that’s always been particularly difficult for digital encoding to properly discern.  Also, when Ahed’s Knee means to be loud, it’s VERY loud.

There’s a lot of low-fi style and thrust in the experience of Ahed’s Knee.  As brutal as the assault on the protester Ahed was, this film about a course cinematic response sets out to be an even more amped-up cinematic assault than either one.  The transparency of it all is commendable but also artistically trying in its surface-level contention.  As it is, Ahed’s Knee is an important of-the-moment diatribe that will likely land as a noteworthy but singular head of stream in Lapid’s otherwise more conventional body of work.