A celebrated, if a little grumpy, filmmaker arrives in a small town to screen his latest film, and ends up in a personal battle of morals. Ahed’s Knee won the 2021 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize for writer/director Nadav Lapid
Known somewhat enigmatically only as Y, an Israeli filmmaker (played by Avshalom Pollak) arrives in a small town in the Israeli desert for a screening of his latest film in the local library. He is met by Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a young woman from the libraries department at the Ministry of Culture, who has arranged the screening. As a formality, she asks him to sign a document indicating which of the prescribed topics he will discuss in the Q&A afterwards, which is the first indication that perhaps artistic freedom isn’t quite as established as one might imagine.
As Y wanders about the desert killing time, he sends voice messages and videos of his surroundings to his mother and film collaborator, who is ill with cancer.
Writer/director Nadav Lapid has said that the outline for Ahed’s Knee is based on events which happened to him around a screening of his previous feature Synonyms, and the rawness of the emotions barely remains contained for too long. In the course of the day, Y experiences things which make him despair at the state of his country and of its wider moral compass, and the solo visit to the desert is the catalyst for unleashing a tirade of anger against authority in general, but specifically the Israeli army, and the Ministry of Culture (and by extension the entire government). The handheld camerawork jangles and rattles right in Y’s face as he stumbles through the desert, or moves quickly from one view to another, tracking Y’s own eye and head movements. It projects a disconcerting image until the viewer becomes accustomed to it, and hints at the turmoil and frustration within the 40-something director.
The culmination is an intense and powerful outburst (great work from Avshalom Pollak) against the government-imposed limitations of artistic freedom, the philistinism and cultural ignorance of those in power, and the ongoing battle between art and politics. It’s quite something, and worth watching Ahed’s Knee for that scene alone.
The rage against the unfairness of the state’s methods is exacerbated by the injustice of the illness which Y’s mother is suffering – not only is he losing both his artistic liberty and his loyalty to the country of his birth, he’s also losing the person who has always been in his life from the moment he drew breath. Far from being a bit of a grumpy middle-aged man, Y is despairing, angry, and lost all at the same time.
Ahed’s Knee raises the issue of moral complicity among artists who agree ‘as a formality’ to the restrictions in order to be able to continue to work. Whether relocating to another country away from one’s roots is a better option (Lapid himself has tried this too), and what the long-lasting effects on the country’s cultural productivity will be, Y has yet to determine.