Two years on from swooping the Golden Bear in Berlin with Synonyms (one of our favorites of 2019), Nadav Lapid returns with Ahed’s Knee, a fraught and blisteringly sincere tirade on the country’s creeping “loyalty” laws that saw the director once again attempting to articulate the warring contradictions and confusion of life as an Israeli citizen. The film competed in competition in Cannes earlier this month, where Lapid was awarded the Jury Prize (an accolade he shared with Apichatpong Weerasethakul for Memoria.)
Based largely on the director’s own experiences, it follows Y (Avshalom Pollak), a filmmaker visiting Arraba, where he has been invited to introduce one of his earlier films. There he meets Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a young librarian for the culture ministry. Their conversations begin amiably, even flirtatiously, but soon escalate to frank admissions of disillusionment; recollections of a grueling and formative experience in military service; and later a desperate monologue on state suppression. Following the film’s premiere, Lapid took a moment to talk with us. (The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
The Film Stage: Speaking in a recent interview, you said “it’s interesting when the wrong ones are nicer than the right ones.” How does this apply to the characters in Ahed’s Knee?
Nadav Lapid: I think if there is a dilemma, a debate in this movie, it’s whether it is better to be good or politically good. What does it mean if the fact that you have good political positions makes you lose the human side inside you? And what does it mean if the fact that you are a respectful member of the community enables you to do things that are politically wrong? Like Yahalom, basically she is great but she is also a servant of an oppressive system. What does it mean to be good when the situation is terrible—or to be normal when the situation is abnormal?
In this movie the character Y, for instance, is arrogant. He is violent, he sees the other as a permanent enemy. He is surrounded by dragons and has become a dragon himself. I think this is what characterizes sick societies: they give only bad choices. It’s like these three soldiers he is telling her about. You can be either the victim, the tormentor, or the one who is observing from outside and maybe one day will write a novel about it. But you lose the common sense.
The film feels so breathless. It’s unsurprising to hear that you wrote the script in just two weeks. What do you think was the reason for that urgency?
In a way I think everything was so simple and clear. I felt as if the movie already existed and the only thing that I had to do was to do this process of fabrication. I mean, there are a lot of decisions—formal decisions, verbal decisions—but in a way the movie was there. It’s a movie of 17 scenes, which is nothing. The main thing begins more or less at 2p.m., it ends at 9p.m. Everything is super classical, like in a Western. The guy is coming to the village, creating a mess, and leaving.
There was something feverish. I imagine the fact that it took place three weeks after my mother passed away is a big part of that. It was so connected to the actual present. Usually you write about things that oblige you to change a little bit of your perspective, your point of view, in order to recall the past—in order to understand what happened, to analyze it. Here there didn’t exist any element of mediation. It was just taking the things as you feel them and then speaking them.
Would you say that your mother’s passing was the main catalyst for you making the film?
I imagine so. Unlike all my other films, I think one day before I started writing the script I didn’t know I was going to write it. But at the same time I was in such a psychological situation. Everything was vibrating all the time. It was like an earthquake that you already know will lead to total ruin and destruction. In the film he sends his mother this short video in the desert. In a way I am telling myself that the whole movie is actually that video.
There is an interesting line in the film that seems to quote her, “At the end, geography wins.” Could you unpack that?
Yes, it was one of her favorite sentences. For me, the way I interpret it, it is that you can be, as much as you want, in a position of detachment, alienation, and resistance, and reject the place where you live—for instance with Israel. But at the end the sun is shining on your head. The landscape is much more powerful. And in the end you become a detail in this landscape.
It’s always curious to see the insignia of the Israeli culture ministry at the beginning of your films. Has your relationship with them changed over your career? Has it become more difficult to make the work you want to make?
More difficult and less difficult. More difficult because maybe there is this sense that in Israel things are getting worse—although I don’t think that artistic censorship is the worst thing that is happening. In a place that is very suppressive towards many people, for me to have full liberty or freedom does not impress me so much. I think, in a way, it’s even the opposite. There were years where I felt that being a director in Israel, or an artist in Israel, is like being someone who stands on a hill and looks at the valleys burning. I knew it was clear that at a certain moment the fire is going to get to us, and maybe it’s the right thing, because no one should be protected. We are all swimming in the same soup.
I need them less because with the certain success that I gained I can get more money from outside, but I guess I’m not their favorite director. I remember the minister of culture, after Synonyms won in Berlin, she tweeted something funny like, “Haven’t seen the movie, happy for the achievement, but I should still check if it fits the Israeli law.”
But I don’t have a special problem with these people; they don’t interest me so much. What interests me is the way they express the DNA, the collective Israeli soul. Israel, for Jews, is still a democratic country. They are not like cruel tyrants who took over power and suppress people and force them to do things they don’t believe in. They are an expression of the most dominant parts in the collective soul of the nation, and this, in a way, is much more worrying.
With the recent election in Israel and the new government, are you optimistic that things will improve in terms of culture?
I think the main danger to culture in Israel doesn’t come from an external suppression but from self-censorship. This is not a matter of new or old government. I think that this collective soul, this Israeli DNA, suffers from such diseases. Maybe the first one is total ignorance of the fact—the fact that people are totally deaf and blind. I think that as long as this blindness isn’t shaken, new government and old government is like changing a little bit of the façade.
Ahed’s Knee premiered at Cannes Film Festival.