Biweekly Binge: A soliloquy of anger
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Ahed’s Knee
In Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), we don’t see the eponymous knee straightaway. We don’t even meet Claire till about three quarters into Rohmer’s genteel film about romance, age and storytelling. Rohmer’s placid landscape of waterways, lawns, hills and vacation houses form a tumultuous aberration compared to the landscape in Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee—streaming on MUBI—marked by parched desert with the miasma of conflict in the air in Arava region around Sapir in Israel. Here, we see the knee before the second minute passes. Ahed in the title refers to Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian activistwho was arrested after she slapped an Israeli soldier. Lapid’s protagonist Y (Avshalom Pollak) is auditioning to cast an actor as Ahed in his new film. So, we encounter many Aheds and one knee occupies the frame prominently and for long.
While the landscape of Sapir is arid and static, Lapid’s frames move in quick, disorienting pans. There are hardly any reverse shots in Lapid’s film, the camera keeps moving swiftly between the two characters speaking, underlining the tension that glosses over the most innocuous of conversations. Y is in the sparsely populated region (‘Guess the population’ is the preferred ice breaker) to screen his film (that premiered in Berlin, Lapid won Golden Bear in 2019) in the local public library. He liaisons with Yahalom (Nur Fibak) who works at the library and directly under the Director in the Ministry of Culture. She is young and welcoming of Y, a dynamic that works like another call back to the age differences in Rohmer’s film. As they talk and she seemingly gets intimate, Lapid keeps transitioning between the plain, lifeless desert outside a plush guest home and them. She is comfortable in her skin and in her hometown, but he feels repulsed in his own country. He discloses that he served in occupied Lebanon like a non sequitur when she wishes to know about his life, personal and professional. Ahed’s Knee uses spaces and locations to reveal a deep malaise that exists within the façade of an embellished promised land. The camera keeps panning between open skies and desert extending to the horizon, an oasis formed by floods that killed people, flora and fauna is referred to as a ‘miracle’ by Yahalom. Y goes to the pond and takes a dive, looks at the skeletons but before that he urinatesforming a circle around himself as if marking territory that’s already contaminated by history.
Lapid is fascinated by the back of people’s heads and bodies. Several shots follow the solitary man from the back of his neck and above, or the man and the woman walking through a ghost town with their backs to us. When their facial features and expressions are taken out of the equation it is their words that colour our opinion of the issues they discuss, again highlighted by the space they occupy—a furnished apartment, a screening at a library teeming with Yahalom’s friends and relatives, interiors of trucks or an army’s hideout. In the last act, the film turns into a monologue but is really Y’s own soliloquy (the camera is eerily focused on one half of his face), his intense emotions, guilt about his past and anger at the occupying forces coming out in droves. The spark plug is the form he is forced to sign for the library screening and how it restricts what he can talk about and thereby restricting what the patrons of the library can consume. A passionate rhetoric against censorship and propaganda consumes him only for it to channelize it via Yahalom. As his friend and colleague remarks over the phone, memories hint at melancholia even when relationships end in resentment. “At the end geography wins”, says Y quoting his mother and co-writer of his scripts. Ahed’s Knee too traces a geography of loss, vendetta and helplessness at an increasingly polarized personal space.