Autofiction has been a novelistic genre for nearly half a century, initially gaining prominence in France, but since 2008, its popularity has exploded worldwide. Claus Elholm Andersen, who is finishing up a book on Karl Ove Knausgård, recently appeared on the High Theory podcast, where he shared his opinion that when society is confronted with the idea that it is based on fictions (as seen in the wake of the financial crisis), people then turn to fiction as a means of telling the truth. With his newest film, Ahed’s Knee, Israeli director Nadav Lapid explores such themes through a heavily autobiographical story about personal tragedy and state censorship.
The title refers to Ahed Tamimi, a young Palestinian activist who made international headlines after a video of her slapping Israeli soldiers went viral. The lead character, a director known only as “Y.” (Avshalom Pollak) wants to use cinema to expose the continued lies and illusions Israel has built its statehood upon. The story opens with Y. auditioning actresses for the role of Ahed, who is to be the subject of his next work. With an editing style reminiscent of late ’60s Godard, Ahed’s Knee deconstructs the boundaries between bodies, temporalities, and spaces as part of a polemic against Israeli state censorship. The film is structured visually around placid suburbs that feel alien in the desert. Y. is taking a break from production on his movie about Tamimi to present a screening of a previous work at a small-town library. But a few hours before, Yohalom (Nur Fibak), a friendly young Ministry of Culture worker, hands him a form outlining which topics he’s allowed to discuss at the post-screening Q&A. If he doesn’t uphold the agreement, he won’t be paid. Y. decides to leverage his position to expose the Ministry for its censorship, even if doing so ruins Yohalom’s career.
Ahed’s Knee explores the complexity of how “good,” “nice” people often find themselves as the face of oppression. Y. likes Yohalom; they flirt and discuss art. He understands that she’s well-intentioned and doesn’t like what she’s asking him to do. On the other hand, he’s curt and aloof, cold and snobbish. His sexual appetites are ravenous, often uncaring. He’s internalized his disgust with Israeli society by becoming almost monstrous himself, particularly after the recent loss of his mother. He’s torn over his conviction to violate his contract because Yohalom is a cog in a system, and it’s unclear whether taking a political stand will even do anything beyond further strain his relationship with state arts funding and take away her future. The story is a battleground of moral debate. Lapid doesn’t waver on the idea that Israel is an oppressor — the question is instead what constitutes the best, most ethical way to fight the system, and what it means to be a product of such an environment.
Y. is the latest in a series of similar “Y”s and Yoavs present in nearly every one of Lapid’s films, each of whom are fictional stand-ins for an artist grappling with his identity. The Yoav of his previous movie, 2019’s Synonyms, immigrates from Israel to France and refuses to speak Hebrew in an attempt to distance himself from militarization and state violence. In contrast, this Y. has to grapple with the truth that “geography wins,” and we can’t escape our homelands. Both Y. and Lapid were born and raised in Tel Aviv. Besides Tamimi, a heavy inspiration was the “Loyalty in Culture” bill, which would have revoked government funding for any artist who would “contravene the principles of the state.” And around that same time, Lapid’s own mother died. The story is based directly on an experience Lapid had showing his film The Kindergarten Teacher in a small town. Much as Andersen argues, Lapid’s engagement with autofiction seems born from disillusionment. His repeated insertion of himself into these works becomes a study in a man whose identity is tied so closely to a society built on oppression.
Ahed’s Knee thus acts like an exorcism, a reckoning with political obligation and what it means to be good on a social versus an interpersonal level. The unmade film within a film about Ahed Tamimi becomes commentary on how artists can use the stories of others to evade true self-reflection. In contrast to Synonyms, this is a story about someone who has stopped running from their past. Ahed Tamimi’s story does not belong to Lapid, but the responsibility of dismantling Israel’s oppression of Palestinians does not lie only with Palestinians.
Ahed’s Knee is now playing in select theaters.