There is so much noise in Nadav Lapid’s “Ahed’s Knee” (“Ha’berech”): from the whitewash of the opening frames, which roar into a revving motorcycle engine, to an unexpected Vanessa Paradis needle drop, to the strange host of anatomical noises as Y (the choreographer Avshalom Pollack, very much in control of his physicality) breathes heavily and pads across the floors of his rented apartment in Arava, the desert where he’s screening his new film. When it comes to bodily noises, the dialed-up sonic awareness translates as a repressed sexual tension—that’s part of it too, of course, as Lapid introduces Y to Yahalom (Nur Fibak), the young bureaucrat who curates art on behalf of the minister, whose charm is a convenient front for her complicity.
But most of all, sound indicates memory and trauma, from the almost-homoerotic collective shout of an all-male military troop to the slow-burning, quiet grief of a man losing his mother. “At the end, geography wins,” Y discloses before a crowd at his film’s screening, adding, “Not necessarily in a good way.” Trapped in the arid vistas of Arava and trapped within the stubborn censorship of its own government and culture, “Ahed’s Knee” resists its own geography while also responding to it and participating in its documentation.
Indeed, the film autobiographically recreates much of its director’s experience. The plot is relatively straightforward: Y, a moderately successful filmmaker, goes to Arava to screen his film as well as develop a new one, “Ahed’s Knee,” based on the infamous story of Ahed Tamimi, a teenaged Palestinian protestor who slapped a soldier and sparked a controversial response. There, he meets Yahalom, who—half-knowingly and half-blindly—tries to get him to sign a waiver, promising to abide by the government’s censorship policies. Like Y’s, Lapid’s mother died of lung cancer during the editing of his 2019 film “Synonyms,” and the grief looms large over “Ahed’s Knee,” in the form of long, slow iPhone-filmed shots of desert landscapes, sent as missives to Y’s dying mother—the brief reprieves from the noise that Lapid offers in an otherwise sonically-heavy film. And like Y, Lapid rails against the Israeli government through the film, even while he admits it’s “full of… intimacy” alongside rage and while the state partially funds the film. There is a kind of violence in resistance and a kind of violence in complicity, too, and to that end, the characters in “Ahed’s Knee” are trapped in a perpetual dance with their own identity and nationality, a never-ending negotiation of morality and belonging.
Indeed, no character in “Ahed’s Knee” is simplistically good, nor simplistically evil, disrupting what would have otherwise been an easy moral binary. A self-professed literary fanatic, Yahalom cares deeply about her job—and it doesn’t hurt that she likes Y’s films—but she’s nevertheless still the dutiful functionary of a government with a restrictive censorship policy. Even Y himself, traumatized by his military service and his preemptive mourning, uses cruel, vindictive means to further his cause, though it may be a noble one. If geography always wins, then these are its victims: people whose participation in art, whether producing it or consuming it, is corroded by an invasive system.
The other corrosive force in this film is, of course, memory, as the traumatic flashbacks to Y’s time in the military provide the backdrop of his righteous anger against the state. Lapid centers the homosocial violence of military life in his crosshairs, the way that the censorship and culture of silence Y faces in his adult career stems from the same oppressive groupthink that forced young soldiers to take cyanide pills in a simulated “Judgement Day” scenario in Y’s youth. It’s not only a useful fable, but a striking moment of humanity and one that gets flipped on its head in a foreshadowed yet surprising final scene. That heady sense of blind loyalty to country, so potent that grown men would theoretically choose to die by suicide to protect state secrets, haunts Y into his adulthood, shaping not only his art but his personhood. The old lie reigns supreme: Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.
But perhaps geography doesn’t always have to turn its people into victims, as the film seems to suggest in a final scene that doubles back on its earlier convictions. Perhaps it’s the length and magnitude of his climactic final monologue. Or the extremity of the state’s cruelty, in forms both violent and bureaucratic. Whatever it is—Y’s final breakdown and the concession that all that’s needed is to “be good, and you’ll feel good” feel slightly tacked-on. What can it really do for an individual player to “be good” in a geography this brutal? [B]