REVIEW: Ha’berech [Ahed’s Knee] [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 102 minutes
    Release Date: July 15th, 2021 (Israel) / March 18th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: United King Films / Kino Lorber
    Director(s): Nadav Lapid
    Writer(s): Nadav Lapid

Although there are no answers.

Ask Y (Avshalom Pollak) what you can be in an increasingly oppressive state like his homeland of Israel and he’ll say: victim, aggressor, or complicit bystander. It’s a very reductive view of the world—a cynical one too. You can’t really blame him for existing in a headspace of such extremes, though, considering the world around him is crumbling. His mother, confidant, and artistic collaborator is dying of cancer. His politically charged films are at-risk of being censored both in post-production via a cultural ministry working to silence criticism against the Jewish state and pre-production via refusing funding for anything deemed controversial. Y is a man of deep convictions possessed by a massive ego who would rather burn everything to the ground than take a breath and listen.

And writer/director Nadav Lapid unleashes him upon an unsuspecting desert town in Ha’berech [Ahed’s Knee] and its home-grown library minister Yahalom David (Nur Fibak). She’s a big fan of Y and fought hard to secure a screening of his latest movie in the place where she grew up. She’s confident she’ll be able to entice a large portion of their citizens to come, but there’s always a large contingent of friends and family to pick up the slack just in case. You can tell that Y is skeptical of Yahalom’s fandom, though. She’s a government official after all. The enemy to an artist such as himself. But she’s also young. And her words seem genuine. So, he challenges her to see where she stands: for repression or freedom.

Y challenges everyone in this way. Even himself where it comes to daring to make a film about Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian woman known for confronting Israeli soldiers despite the risk to her life and health. Can he find cast and crew willing to get on-aboard? Will he be able to secure financing? Would anyone even show it locally to those who need to see it most? In his mind he’s a hero for the attempt alone, willing to martyr himself and destroy his career in pursuit of something he believes is critical to exposing how bad things have become. As such, anyone allowed into his inner circle must be vetted. That includes the man driving him to his engagement, every question carefully worded as a trap.

Here’s the thing, though. Y isn’t a hero. He’s not even good person. Maybe that’s not his fault. Maybe it’s a product of seeing Israel’s deterioration and his own complicity. Either way, he’s just an artist so caught up in his own greatness (he tells a dating app match that he has no photos because he’s “kind of famous”) that everyone becomes his enemy if they don’t show they possess the same hero complex he does for the issues he deems important. So, even though Yahalom agrees with his assessment that the Ministry’s demands for an approved script of topics despite the work he’s showing going against them all is “pathetic,” acknowledgement isn’t enough for Y. He demands a full denouncement. And he’ll steal it if he must.

The film is thus an existential breakdown of sorts where Y embraces this self-imposed mission to an unhealthy extent while struggling to deal with the changes impacting his life. Rather than deal with his mother’s illness (he films video messages for her, sending them in lieu of her being able to attend) and confront the ways in which he can battle the status quo beyond spitting in its face with his work, Y fancies himself a spy that can turn his mark to his side. Will he confront Yahalom and cajole her into going on the record against her bosses? Will he get her to agree to let him speak his mind at the screening without reporting him to them? Or will he use her for his means?

Ahed’s Knee is an angry, confrontational work wherein Lapid has no qualms with making his audience uncomfortable. Sometimes that’s in the filmmaking (the first half is full of disorienting hand-held pans away from his subject and back in sweeping lines from left to right or up to down that might make those with weak stomachs sick) and other times it’s in the subject matter (his big plan to expose Yahalom to herself as complicit to this regime’s horrors is through an anecdote about his service at the Syrian border and cyanide capsules). There are random musical interludes from actresses auditioning to be Ahed to the songs playing in Y’s headphones or the car he’s riding in to a soundcheck at a restaurant. Some segues are just plain weird.

I’m assuming that won’t be the case for everyone, though. I’m an outsider with minimal knowledge where it comes to the subject matter, so it should play a lot better for those in the know. So, take my belief that certain sequences feel superfluous with a grain of salt because I may be missing the nuance. It was simply difficult for me to take Y seriously because of his self-important attitude and rather cruel nature. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing when dealing with the fact that he is the one who needs to open his eyes (Yahalom being part of the problem doesn’t render her existence expendable when her cognizance could alternatively help disrupt from within), but I’m not sure he does. Catharsis doesn’t equal growth.

Will Y put in the work to better himself in the aftermath of what occurs during Lapid’s film? I don’t know. If I were to guess, however, I’d probably say no. And that kind of undercuts the message beyond it telling us to not be like Y ourselves. But that too seems counter-intuitive considering this is a film doing many of the same things Y’s films do. So where does Lapid fit in the metaphor? The meta-ness of the whole kind of gets in its own way to the point where I’m not sure anything of crucial worth is learned from beginning to end. If anything, Y’s actions will ultimately force Yahalom to silence herself. Suddenly Y’s provocation damages his own mission. It’s pure aggression. Impulse above complexity.

[1] Avshalom Pollak in a scene from Ahed’s Knee, courtesy of Kino Lorber
[2] Avshalom Pollak and Nur Fibak in a scene from Ahed’s Knee, courtesy of Kino Lorber
[3] A scene from Ahed’s Knee, courtesy of Kino Lorber

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