In 2021, after a decade-long absence, an Israeli film once more made the official selection for the Cannes Film Festival – Ahed’s Knee, a film by Nadav Lapid, is a deeply personal piece about a man in crisis and an artist’s loneliness. As such, it leans heavily into its creator’s own personal experiences. In the film, Lapid follows the story of a film director (Avshalom Pollak) in his mid-forties who travels to a desolate small town, in the far end of the desert, for a screening of one of his films. There, he meets a dutiful pencil pusher (Nur Fibak) who works in the Department for Culture and Sport and finds himself waging two losing battles: one, against the death of artistic freedom and freedom of expression in his country and the other, against his mother’s death.
“I wrote Ahed’s Knee over a two-and-a-half-week period, about a month and a half after the death of my mother, Era Lapid, who herself was an editor,” Lapid recalled. “It came bursting out of me, almost uncontrollably. That film is drenched in this death. And my hope is that in life, too. I feel as though I’d mined Ahed’s Knee, like my previous films and perhaps, even more so, from the deepest depths of my body and soul and mind, and looking at it, it feels like I can see that those are the years of my life laid out onscreen.”
In Cannes, they were evidently rather appreciative of this mining act and indeed, Ahed’s Knee took home the prestigious Jury Prize. And the timing could not have been more opportune, seeing as how Nadav who had tested positive for COVID during the festival was finally able to come out of self-isolation, a day before the festival’s closing ceremony. His voice quivered as he delivered his acceptance speech. In it, he admitted how challenging he found the making of Ahed’s Knee, before turning to Cannes jury president, Spike Lee, and telling him how “when I was 14, my mother who was an editor, showed me your film, Jungle Fever, and it made a real impression on me.”
At the immediate press conference that followed the ceremony, I asked Spike Lee what made him choose Lapid’s film for the jury’s top honours, to which he replied, “That’s a very, very courageous film. It needs to be seen. There are several films in this festival coming from countries where if you say the wrong thing, you’re getting locked up, or worse. We needed to applaud that courage.” Lee’s jury peers, directors Mati Diop and Kleber Mendonça Filho added that Lapid also won the award owing to the film’s artistic qualities, its bold and daring form and aesthetics, and radical filmmaking style.
Ahed’s Knee also owes its success to Pollak’s impressive and powerful performance. For instance, in the scene where the Department of Culture rep, in the middle of the desert, demands that he sign a document pledging that that he will only address issues related to Israel and Judaism in his talk, and refrain from discussing any potentially touchy subjects; which then prompts the director’s staunchly and scathingly political anti-Israeli speech – a major part of his downward spiral towards an eventual breakdown.
“I think that these types of scenes exist in all my films. Although the speech/breaking point scene in Ahed’s Knee is possibly the most extreme example of that,” Lapid said at the Cannes press conference. “There’s something here [in that place] between faith and a desperate need to say it all, let out all the words. This idea that if you just did an onscreen closeup and laid it all bare, said it all – to Israelis, to people, to human beings in general – then just maybe something might change. Then, there’s also the cognisance of the fact that words are simultaneously everything and nothing, and that even after you got your closeup and you’ve said everything there was to say, you realise that you don’t in fact have the words, and that maybe there aren’t even enough words in the dictionary. I felt like there was something quite powerful in that meeting point between the ultrapersonal and the hyperpolitical – a man who delivers a political speech, then comes crashing down.”