“A Boxing Contest Between the Movie and the Viewer”: Nadav Lapid on Ahed’s Knee
Ahed’s Knee, Nadav Lapid’s latest feature, takes its title from the teenage Palestinan activist who became a media sensation (and was then imprisoned) for squaring off against Israeli soldiers in 2017. Heralded for his Gold Bear-winning Synonyms and The Kindergarten Teacher, a tw0-hander that produced a Netflix-distributed American remake, Lapid’s work remains consistently critical of, and in opposition to, the oppressive Israeli government. Even so, he remains, in J. Hoberman’s eyes, “the most internationally acclaimed Israeli filmmaker in recent memory…and perhaps ever.”
While promoting The Kindergarten Teacher in 2018, Lapid was invited by Israel’s Ministry of Culture to participate in a post-screening Q&A for the film in the village of Sapir. The Ministry’s one mandatory requirement was that Lapid sign a form swearing him to discuss only a select number of pre-approved topics at the screening—anything deemed controversial or provocative by the Ministry of Culture was prohibited. Soon after the event—which came while dealing with the loss of his mother, the film editor Era Lapid, to cancer—Lapid was surprised to see a “Loyalty of Culture” bill proposed that aimed to limit free speech and funding for artists who spoke out against their government.
From this experience came Ahed’s Knee, a faithfully angry but funnier recounting of Lapid’s personal experience of the summer of 2018. Distracted by news of his mother’s ongoing battle with cancer, Y (Avshalom Pollak) visits the desert area of Arava to discuss his new film. Upon arrival, a Ministry of Culture representative (Nur Fibak) brings up the sensitive request of getting Y to agree to a list of pre-approved talking points. Bewildered by this censorship, Y is provoked to spend the day addressing the issues of his home country and his knotty past, including his service as a youth in the Israel Defense Forces. A blunt polemic with flashy filmmaking gravitas, Ahed’s Knee is an intense yell that makes sure you hear it.
After making its world premiere at last year’s Cannes film festival (where it was a co-winner of the Jury prize alongside Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria), Ahed’s Knee enjoyed a healthy festival run before being picked up by Kino Lorber for U.S. theatrical distribution, where it is now in limited release.
Filmmaker: You’ve previously spoken of how the plot for Ahed’s Knee came together pretty quickly—it was the fastest thing you’d ever written and went into production on. At one point in the process, you considered making it as either a short film or an installation piece. I was curious about the ways you envisioned the story manifesting in ways other than a feature-length film.
Lapid: I had identified that one of the characteristics of the story, for better or maybe worse, was that it was a pretty naked, exposed [story]. The ratio between its essence and [its] cover was pretty different from what we are used to, and especially from what we are used to in my previous films. I had a feeling that, as a feature, this story could feel like the work of an impatient director—one in a mental, psychological, and artistic situation, totally fed up with the established bureaucracy of film.
However: the history of filmmaking has taught us that, without this bureaucracy in place, the great majority of films would collapse. When we attempt to rid ourselves, once and for all, of this childish way of [storytelling], to move past treating [viewers] like kids who we tell a story to before sending off to bed, most of our attempts ultimately fail. For me personally, there is a limit to respecting the rules of this narrative platform known as [filmmaking] and a limit to how much we can delete it. It’s like the relationship between the body and the heart, or the body and the brain: It’s the body that makes up and gives the brain and heart a physical presence, a stature. The body provides it with a cover. The reason why I felt this film might work best as a short was because the presence of this body, this cover, was new to me and it felt less like a [narrative feature] than a kind of essay film.
Outside of a few moments, I think the movie ultimately plays on two levels. One of these is a classic story of the Western genre where a man—here, a filmmaker—visits a distant place, an unknown land, and there’s not a lot of plot. At the same time, [the other level] features a kind of vibrating essence. The main character finds himself in a situation where he’s unable to remain in an everyday zone of neutrality. Everything is explosive and charged for him, and that’s true even when he’s sitting alone or says “thank you” to someone. To speak metaphorically, there isn’t a moment where he’s not throwing bombs and shooting missiles.
Filmmaker: I believe Ahed’s Knee was a quick, 18-day shoot. Was that shorter period of production time freeing for you? Did it open up new doors, creatively, or perhaps create a new set of challenges?
Lapid: Of course, it’s challenging to shoot in so few days, but everything in this movie contributed to (or went in) the same direction. The fact that we weren’t [granted] many shooting days ultimately forced me to search directly for [the film’s] essence. When I refer to “the essence,” I am not speaking of a narrative essence, but rather a cinematic essence. The shorter shooting schedule pushed me to take risks and it felt right, as risks are the only truth of this movie. If I were preparing a safer, more conventional cinematic version of this movie, I would be setting out to make something false. With more time at your disposal, there is a tendency to fabricate. Here, the only possibility was to follow the heartbeat of the movie almost blindly, with no hesitation until the end.
Almost no single shot in the film is neutral. There wasn’t time, there wasn’t a place for neutrality, for prudence. Ahed’s Knee is an unbalanced movie, but I don’t think that’s a particularly negative thing—when making art, I don’t know if needing balance is a positive thing. This movie possesses several layers and dimensions, but hopefully you feel that it’s a movie where the filmmaker is simply doing whatever he feels like, without having any agreed upon balance. Usually, big studios release films that come with a kind of balance. With my film, I feel it more closely resembles getting caught in a storm.
Filmmaker: Were you shooting in the section of Arava that you had visited back in the summer of 2018? Were you hoping to specifically retrace your steps?
Lapid: It was more or less retracing my steps, yes, although there were some differences between my actual experience and what you see in the movie. Basically, what we were most after was trying to find locations that would resemble the feeling I had [during my initial visit] to Arava, feelings of a non-poetic desert and its sand. There are maybe three or four areas or moments that possess a feeling of omnipotence, but most of the time it was a vague sand.
Filmmaker: Although Avshalom Pollak had acted in a popular television series years ago, I believe he retired from acting thereafter. What does his casting in your film signify to an Israeli audience, as opposed to an international audience who may be less familiar with his career?
Lapid: When Avshalom was in his early twenties, he starred on an Israeli television series [the ensemble drama Florentine, which aired for 39 episodes between 1997-2001] and became well known. It was very popular. Avshalom comes from a big family of actors, but he has since become more [well known] for being a choreographer, which he has spent most of his life doing. [Pollak runs the Avshalom Pollak Dance Theatre in Tel Aviv.]
Avshalom brought several things [to the film], all more or less important. There is always a difficulty in casting an actor to play a writer or a painter or a filmmaker. We held several auditions for the role [of Y] and, while every actor was quite good, I couldn’t believe them [in the role] and couldn’t believe that they would work as what the character [does for a living in the film]. When you watch a historical movie about a great artist, like [French sculptor] Auguste Rodin, and observe the performance of the actor [playing him], you think: “Eh, this is okay, but the actor is clearly not a sculptor.” With Avshalom, there was an advantage to the character not actually existing [in real life].
While what Avshalom brought to the movie had already existed on the page in the script. His presence resonates a mixture of fragility, vulnerability, despair and rage. Aspects of rage, fury and narcissism existed in the script, but there was something about Avshalom that allowed the viewer to really feel the fragility, even in moments where the character is at his most unlikeable and you can feel his arrogance and despair. You feel that he is on the edge of collapsing all the time, either by knowing about his military background or ignoring it completely.
Filmmaker: How has the working relationship with your cinematographer, Shai Goldman, grown from film to film? Do you still attempt to challenge each other? Ahed’s Knee features some pretty impressive camera work, from playful whip pans to onscreen animated text, the staging of tw0-person dialogue sequences that feel like the viewer is being directly spoken to and the fourth wall being broken.
Lapid: Shai and myself have totally different temperaments, totally different visions for how we observe existence. I think being an observer is in Shai’s basic nature. When he’s [working on a film], it’s much more natural for him to observe things from a certain distance. When we began work on Ahed’s Knee, I was prepping by repeatedly watching videos of the painter, Jackson Pollock. As time passes [in my career], I try to get the camera really involved, essentially turning the camera into another actor. We’re forcing the camera to be involved or get in the way, spoiling, breaking and preventing it from staying neutral. This is something we’re progressing with from one movie to the next.
I don’t see any other choice but to make audio-visual experiences that search for new nuances. We want the form to get closer and closer to [mirroring] our thoughts and intentions. In order to pull that off, we must get as far away from conventions as possible, because conventions are the opposite of specificity and singularity. It’s kind of obvious, right? I’m bored by art that’s not putting itself in danger, that’s not looking for new paths in the jungle or in the desert. I don’t like to be bored by my own movies. If I have to wake up at 5AM for a long, tiring shoot and it doesn’t include a cinematic adventure, I prefer to stay in bed. If I’m just going to shoot things using a close-up or a two-shot, I can send a machine to do it while I stay in bed and listen to the audio from my headphones. We need to face the unknown, and that is, I think, the essence of this film.
I talked before about an “unbalanced movie” and I think that a common distance provides me with a kind of balance. Whenever I come with a pre-planned shooting [storyboard], I begin to explain each of the shots and find myself drowning in endless explanations, only for us, in the end, to agree, “Eh, we’ll just keep things simple.” I’ve figured out that there’s something about Shai that keeps him connected to Earth, a relationship tied to common sense. When I prepare myself for a movie and begin to live in a land of cinematic gestures, I get totally disconnected from a shared common sense, and Shai [holds onto it].
Filmmaker: You had a close relationship with your previous editor, Era Lapid, which makes sense given that she was your mother and was tasked with editing each of your previous features [Lapid passed away in 2018 after an untreatable battle with cancer]. What was the experience like of working with a different editor, Nili Feller, on Ahed’s Knee?
Lapid: Nili Feller had previously edited [fellow Israeli filmmaker] Ari Folman’s films, including Waltz with Bashir and Where Is Anne Frank. While Ari is a good friend of mine, Nili and I didn’t know each other very well, even though I have enjoyed most of her work. I had remembered inviting Nili to a [rough cut] screening of Synonyms a few years ago and she gave very interesting feedback. For me, I am very involved in the editing [process] and while yes, my mother was my previous editor, I think there’s an inherent bond between my life and the cinema. When a parent dies, you don’t have any place to hide anymore. The family is the frontline between life and death, and I think that’s also the case between directing and [editing]. I was involved in the editing process on my previous films, but now I feel called upon to take on further responsibilities.
Filmmaker: Your film alludes to Israel’s Ministry of Culture proposing the implementation of a “Loyalty in Culture” bill, a bill that would “grant the government the authority to withdraw funding from artists if it were determined that their work violated a set of political criteria—from denying Israel’s existence, to mourning Israel’s Independence Day, to denigrating the flag.” Where does that bill currently stand?
Lapid: That proposition encountered much political consternation and was ultimately not passed. And while there is currently a new Ministry of Culture and Sport in Israel [led by Hili Tropper since May 2020], there are still a lot of strange demands and restrictions implemented by the Israeli Film Fund. The way this movie was treated by Israeli authorities and the former Ministry of Culture leader [Miri Regev] was….well, her whole “thing” was to consistently get into conflicts with artists, to try to suppress and oppress them by putting pressure on their [work], which was, of course, critical and negative [of the state]. At the same time, I must say that I witnessed the importance that she contributed, albeit in her perverse and stupid way, to art and to cinema. The new leader is more [passive], believing along the lines of, “Eh, these works are not so important. This is not ‘Israeli cinema’ to us. This is something that we don’t want to associate with anyway. Let the strange guy show his movies.”
Ahed’s Knee talks about a society that instead of embracing poets, chooses to disrespect them and give off extreme hostility towards them. I feel that this is what’s happening today. In a way, perhaps the biggest danger [to art] is not fascist oppression, but ignorance and stupidity.
Filmmaker: Since the film is partly about a director who has to travel to a remote area to present a film of his to (and discuss it afterward with) a very specific, pre-selected audience, I was curious about your past Q&A experiences at film festivals throughout the world. Do you alter your approach to how you speak about a film based on where the screening is taking place and to whom you’re screening it for?
Lapid: It’s strange talking about the film right after [audiences have seen it], partly because I think my movies sometimes attack the audience. It’s like a boxing contest between the movie and the viewer, where the movie is slapping the viewer and the viewer is slapping the movie. At the end of the contest, we get to see who is still standing on their feet.
Because I’m basically a nice person, I sometimes feel that people are almost surprised or disappointed [by my presence]. At other filmmakers’ Q&As, audiences might find a movie to be kinder [than mine], but then the director turns out to be a terrible, very arrogant [person]. And while I’m nice and like to give answers to audiences’ questions, I feel that the problem with this approach is that it softens the viewing experience the person just had. After viewing a movie like mine, there’s something much more violent, and maybe more sincere, in letting people bump into the movie without having to contextualize the experience after the fact.
While I like giving interviews (and I’m not feeling this way now as we’re talking today), interviews can be very difficult, mostly because I’m afraid to try to speak about a film’s political context, to place it in whatever other context [it may have]. All of these contexts exist in the film, of course, but should you give [an explanation] for them? I feel that the movie is something like the relationship between artist Mark Rothko and his expressionist paintings. When you can see the emotions, thoughts, feelings and words on a screen in very vivid colors, maybe the right thing to do is to just whisper or shout about what you just felt, without having to give an explanation as to why.