Director: Nadav Lapid (France, Israel, Germany). Year of Release: 2021
A busy road, quite possibly in Tel Aviv. A motorbike is driving quickly through driving rain, the rider’s face hidden behind a raindrop-strewn helmet. After a few near misses with passing cars, the bike stops outside a large building. The rider dismounts removing her helmet. That’s right, we only see a view from behind, but enough to see that despite the macho gear, she’s a woman.
She’s turned up to audition for a new film about Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian girl most famous for slapping an Israeli soldier. The response of the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Bezalel Smotrich, was to send out a tweet saying that the 16-year old should have been shot, at least in the knee. We’re only a few minutes in and I’m starting to think this might get good, although I’m not so sure that the real Ahed Tamimi sang along to Guns and Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle.
I hadn’t been expecting much, as the main advertising for Ahed’s Knee has been to tell us that this is the new film by the director of the Berlinale winning Synonyms – a film which I viscerally hated. But here, you did have the feeling that this film might tell hard truths about Palestine. It does, in a sense, but purely from an Israeli perspective. After the opening scenes there is barely a mention of Tamimi, or indeed of any Palestinian. Even the actors auditioning for the part of Ahed are Israeli.
Cut to: the inside of a small plane. A man pushes to the front – he’s wearing dark glasses and a leather jacket with grizzled hair and beard. Yes, he does look like an entitled dick. He introduces himself as X (well he does in the German subtitles, in the English version apparently he’s called Y), and tells the female pilot he’s a film maker. When he asks if he can film from the cockpit, she simpers and lets him do whatever he wants.
We follow X (or Y) to a house in a small settlement in the desert. He is let into the house by Yahalom, a former librarian who now has an important job in the Israeli Ministry of Culture. She must be at most half his age (in a later scene, someone mentions that she’s even younger than she looks), and continuously tells X how great a director he is. She looks longingly at him, and the camera zooms in on their faces, just inches away from each other, apparently about to kiss.
Can we just stop one minute to deconstruct this? This is a film, made by a film maker, about a film maker who seems to be irresistible to young women, who all adore him. I’m betting there’s more than a little wish fulfilment going on here. I’m not entirely sure whether we’re supposed to find X compellingly attractive or an arrogant arsehole, but clearly he thinks the former, and you feel that, as he’s obviously a stand in for director Nadav Lapid, he’s not the only one.
There follows a bit of largely irrelevant plot. X is in town to show an old film of his which opened in Berlin (I wonder which other director’s films have opened in Berlin). He’s due to speak at a Q&A afterwards, but he doesn’t want to watch the film again. Yahalom has already seen it twice, so she accompanies him for a walk in the desert. Not for the first time, the camera whizzes all over the place like a child who has taken too many E numbers and needs the attention.
While they are walking, she reminds him of a contract he’s obliged to sign, explaining what he’s talking about. It’s literally just a matter of crossing boxes, and he can choose from a number of bland options, like love or culture. He refuses to sign any of them, going into a diatribe about how Israel is an undemocratic, racist state which is trying to censor artistic freedom.
He has a point, and in a different context, this would be brave film making. But let’s just look at the context. This is not a public row, and even though Lapid later uses a risible plot device to make the confrontation known to a slightly wider audience, X is hardly speaking truth to power. Instead we watch him shouting at a woman and making her cry. For all his abuse about Israel being a racist State, he never explains how it is racist, despite there being plenty of evidence.
Ahed’s Knee preaches to the choir in two ways. Firstly, it confuses bringing an argument about the oppression of Palestinians with self-righteously telling your mates what they already think and basking in their applause. Secondly it is a view of Palestinian liberation which denies Palestinians any agency. Like Waltz with Bashir before it, Ahed’s Knee reduces the problems of decades of oppression to some liberal Israelis feeling a bit sad.
A majority of critics have loved the film, but I think the most honest review was from a right wing User (probably Israeli) on IMDB. While attacking the Israeli Left (including Lapid) for being intolerant, it lauds the film, giving it 9/10. This is the other side of the film only speaking to a self-selected audience. For a supposedly political film, it has very little impact and does not manage to scare the horses. The smug politics are made even worse by the lack of artistic ambition.