Anti-Holiday Movie ‘Ahed’s Knee’ Follows an Israeli Filmmaker to the Desert

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A man alone in a desert landscape.
The filmmaker 'Y' in Nadav Lapid's 'Ahed's Knee.' (Kino Lorber)

“Provocateur” isn’t precisely the right word to describe Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid. There’s no question that the Paris-based director of Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher and Synonyms aims to destabilize and disturb his audience. But he is just as unflinching about interrogating his own identity and culpability—as an Israeli citizen and as an artist.

Score a few bravery points, as well, for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which screens Lapid’s blistering Cannes jury prizewinner Ahed’s Knee in its winter Hanukkahfest event. Primarily an online reprise of the most popular films in the 2021 SFJFF along with a salute to the late Ed Asner, the Nov. 28–Dec. 6 series also includes the local premiere of Dirty Tricks, a diverting, aptly named documentary about cheating at the highest levels of the competitive bridge world.

But the real draw, although it is not what most folks would call a crowd-pleaser, is the semi-autobiographical Ahed’s Knee. A middle-aged filmmaker of abundantly cruel charm (Avshalom Pollak) treks to a barely inhabited Israeli desert town where he’s been invited to show his latest film at the local library. Y, as he is called, is a long way from his comfort zone of big-city intellectuals, but he is reassured (up to a point) by the welcome he receives from 20-something Yashalom (Nur Fibak), the enthusiastic functionary who booked his appearance.

A man hold his head against a woman's chest, pleading, she is upset.
Still from 'Ahed's Knee.' (Kino Lorber)

Deploying aggressive point-of-view shots and startling compositions, Lapid generates any number of unexpected visual pleasures as well as plenty of sexual tension. But like many filmmakers on tour, Y is there but not quite present.

For one thing, he’s focused on casting and financing his next film about the real-life Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, who was jailed for slapping an Israeli soldier. (In one of the drollest scenes in Ahed’s Knee, an Israeli actress calls Y from her high-rise Tel Aviv apartment to lobby for the part.) At the same time, Y’s mother, his editor and greatest advisor and supporter, has terminal cancer.

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The movie’s political subtext comes roaring to the fore in a furious rant ostensibly fueled by Y’s anger at Israel’s right-wing then-Minister of Culture Miri Regev and his own impotence with respect to both the ongoing Occupation and the complacency of the Israeli public. His target is the well-intentioned Yashalom, and even if we discern that Y’s blowup is really a manifestation of grief for his imminent loss, Lapid knows it will turn viewers against both his protagonist and, quite possibly, his movie.

Ahed’s Knee is a piercing, uncompromising and deeply personal film. It is, quite obviously, the antithesis of the “holiday movie.”

Hanukkahfest streams online Nov. 28–Dec. 5. Details here.