Nadav Lapid’s Cinema of Shame

Nadav Lapid’s Cinema of Shame

His new film Ahed’s Knee is a shallow cri de coeur against the Israeli state. 


Nadav Lapid has the uncertain honor of being the most acclaimed Israeli film director. A perennial favorite at festivals around the world, his autobiographical works explore the machismo of the Israeli regime, the moral predicaments of its artists, and the “sickness” in the souls of its citizens. Lapid wants to be seen as the state’s enfant terrible, a so-called critic whose characters launch epithets at their home: “odious,” “repugnant,” “fetid,” “obscene,” “vulgar.” But Lapid’s art also betrays a tortured affinity for Zionism, complicating his christening as an Israeli punk and perhaps explaining why he has thus far been unwilling to cross the one line that would render him an enemy of his state. His most recent film is Ahed’s Knee, and it is about the knee of a 16-year-old Palestinian girl named Ahed Tamimi.

Well, it is and it isn’t. The film follows an Israeli filmmaker named Y. (Avshalom Pollak), who is invited by a longtime fan, Yahalom (Nur Fibak), to screen his latest film in a small-town community center in the Arabah valley, south of the Dead Sea. Yahalom is a local who works as a librarian for the Israeli Ministry of Culture; upon arrival, she asks Y. to sign an official declaration that commits him to avoid speaking about certain topics deemed unsavory by the Israeli government: Palestinians, no, Israelis, yes; occupation, no, the military, yes; and so on. Angered by the perceived censorship, Y. goes on an hour-long verbal rampage about Israeli hypocrisy, soul-searching amid the desert shrubbery and calling his mother.

Before all this, though, the film begins with Y. casting a new video project, which is titled The Knee of Ahed Tamimi. This is the name of a real-life Palestinian child and political prisoner who was detained for slapping an Israeli soldier and also threatened by an Israeli politician, who asked her jailers in the occupation army to shoot her in the kneecap to ensure that her house arrest would become permanent. Ahed’s Knee begins with this casting scene, where several Israeli women try out for the role of Ahed. At one point, the casting director rehearses lines as a single tear drips down the actor’s face:

Casting Director: “Where is victory?”
Actor: “In my sacrifice?”
Casting Director: “And liberation?”
Actor: “Liberation?”
Casting Director: “You keep silent.”

Lapid’s objective here is obvious, and boring: Ahed Tamimi’s knee is the site where the Israeli state’s narratives and mythologies meet tendon and bone, its grotesque mendacities pinned on Lapid’s flattened Palestinian teenager. After the audition, one of the actors calls Y. to beg for the part: “I feel it’s me,” she tells him. “Ahed is me.” With this, Lapid is hinting at the cooptation of the Palestinian that is ubiquitous in Israeli cinema, but his attempt at subversiveness is the weakest possible critique of Israel, closer to a statement of fact about the aesthetic relationship between a settler colonial project and its colonized peoples. The film has been praised for its “bracing” honesty and “visceral” rage about the Israeli state, but these superlatives really say more about its ability to stupefy the Western critic than its director’s willingness to engage with Palestinian lives or history.

At the time of her arrest in 2017, Ahed Tamimi was protesting the shooting of her 15-year-old cousin by the occupation army. Nabi Saleh, the town to the northwest of Ramallah where she grew up, has been host to the various depredations of Israeli colonialism, its citrus trees set on fire by Israeli settlers, its spring taken over by the illegal Halamish settlement, its residents murdered while fighting their dispossession from the land. Perhaps Lapid knows this, but to make a film about this requires care, and the gulf between the performed transgression and the political content of Lapid’s art is sizable: The casting scenes are the last we hear of Ahed or the Palestinians. Lapid is grappling with his appetites here—a desire to make art about Palestinians, to own our history—but he flinches with his narrative choices, deciding to devote the rest of the film to issues of “censorship,” military trauma, and cultural decline, with the hope that we fill in his blanks. In so doing, Lapid has made a self-referential film about self-referential debates within the Israeli state, with a big obstinate hole in the middle where the Palestinians are supposed to be.

This brush between the forbidden and the desired other is presumably what led Richard Brody, in his glowing review for The New Yorker, to suggest that Lapid’s choice of title is an homage to Éric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), an amorous French classic also about a woman’s knee but not really. I find Rohmer an imperfect analog for Lapid, but for one unifying conceit: an interest in seduction, which serves—alongside repression—as one of the primary instruments of power. Lapid makes seductive films and cuts a charismatic figure precisely because of his presentation as an outcast.

While he revels in being an artist at odds with the state, Lapid’s physical and psychic estrangement from the Zionist project is no replacement for the material entanglements of producing art at scale: The Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, which he criticizes in Ahed’s Knee, is one of the production supporters of the film, as is the Israel Film Fund. United King Films, the primary distributor of the film in Israel, is the self-described largest investor in and producer of Israeli cinema, helmed by its CEO, Moshe Edery, a Jewish Moroccan who has worked on the films of Eytan Fox, Joseph Cedar, and Avi Nesher. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Edery says that he gives his filmmakers the “‘freedom to make the movie their way,’” adding however that he “draws the line only at those movies that ‘hurt IDF soldiers and the state.’” What results in Ahed’s Knee, then, is a filmic WrestleMania: lots of punching and yelling and chair-flinging, without ever landing a hit.

Like Waltz With Bashir (2008), Ari Folman’s animated film about an Israeli infantryman during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Ahed’s Knee forms part of a lineage of Israeli films whose focus on the Palestinian goes no further than the moral degradation of the Israeli. Both films include long reflections on their directors’ military service in the occupation army, but Lapid’s comes with a slightly sparkly packaging: shame. This is less remarkable than it might seem. In the wake of harm, shame serves as a mirror for one’s feelings about oneself, a subsuming pity that absolves. (I am no stranger to it.) What one chooses to do with this understanding is what is interesting, for it can be politically neutered.

This manifests as you’d expect. Y. takes out his shame on a woman he feels intellectually superior to, someone he sees as a hapless accessory of the state. “I am the devil, the tormentor,” he tells her; he can lecture her about Israel and, in his perceived difference from her, enjoy a brief reprieve. This is made painfully clear and morally fraught—but in making us feel for the townspeople, we second-guess the director’s revulsion toward their small lives, their making this lonely place their home. In a 2019 interview, Lapid adds, “You can’t hate a country if you’re not attracted to it.” Perhaps, but I’m confident his film’s namesake would disagree.

Lapid’s entry into the cinematic mainstream began with Synonyms (2019), a film about Yoav, an Israeli soldier so disgusted with his country that he moves to Paris and attempts to become French. Much has been made of its final scene, in which Yoav, locked out of his home by his new friends, thrusts himself furiously against the entrance, a metaphorical banging at the gates of a French society that refuses to let him in. The door represents what Lapid has called a “confrontation between mobility and immobility,” which recapitulates a standard Zionist position—that outside of Israel, Jews will always be “the other.” This is perhaps unsurprising for a man born in Tel Aviv, but Yoav’s demands are Lapid’s insecurity: that Israelis will never be welcome in polite Western company. Is that something worth aspiring to in the first place?

Lapid’s films are filled with moments of spectacle like these. In Ahed’s Knee, we watch a satirical infomercial featuring dancing army soldiers; in Synonyms, we are confronted with the filming of a porn scene featuring an Israeli and a Palestinian being asked to fuck for peace. The humor is tinged with despair. Throughout Ahed’s Knee, Y. sends voice notes to his mother, a screenwriter. Lapid’s own mother, Era Lapid, helped edit his first two films, Policeman (2011) and The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), and then died from cancer during the making of Synonyms. Ahed’s Knee is a farewell to mothers—Lapid’s own, his native Israel—a kind of queasy cri de coeur packaged as an “indictment.” But the indictments in Lapid’s films often land squarely on their protagonists: Yoav’s violent antisociality, Y.’s haughty aggression.

This is not in itself a bad thing, and it is clear that Lapid does not intend his characters to be moral standard-bearers; nor should we ask them to be. But it is interesting that Lapid’s attempt to talk about material and social ailments at the level of the individual turns inward rather than expose the structural foundations. My critique of the works here is not that Zionist shame is some sort of unworthy subject, but that the art Lapid is making feels ultimately untrue. For all his oppositional defiance, his combative screeds, he’s still employing the language of Zionism, albeit one that has updated itself to match the current conjuncture. In Synonyms, the only time we hear Yoav speak Hebrew is when he’s fingering himself in bed.

Rather than a wholesale rejection of the language of resistance, Lapid’s films attempt a containment. The climax of Ahed’s Knee—a 10-minute Sermon on the Mount by Y. to Yahalom about the broken promise of Israel, the stupidity of its citizens—is Lapid’s approximation of catharsis. The tirade is delivered by Y., but really by Lapid, and is aimed at the viewer:

Suppose I want to discuss a nationalist, racist, sadistic, abject Jewish state whose sole aim is to reduce the soul, particularly the Arab soul, to impotence and incompetence, so it collapses under the state’s oppression and will be completely at its mercy. A state that is a deadly, congenital, or contagious disease for its citizens. What if the topic is Israelis in their bestial ignorance, blind puppets, wretched creatures, who torment anybody different from them, and who are obsessed with their possessions? Any glimmer of light in them was extinguished by their schools, which commit crimes against their own students, which murder their spirit and exterminate their soul. Which spew out impenetrable spite.… They shut people’s eyes so they forget there’s not one people but a million peoples. Not one country but a million countries. Each of them, Yahalom, is beautiful and important. The universe bubbles over with strange beauty…. Every day, monsters will be born here.… But we’re tied by an unbreakable bond. That truth will drag me down to hell. Puke Israel out of me with a scream, straight into the face. Into the face of your minister of culture! Deranged by malice, he’ll crawl on all fours. Like a cow, he’ll graze.

On the ground, his hands wrapped around Yahalom’s body in supplication, Y. adds, “It will soon pass.” “Gentle, please,” Yahalom replies. In the ensuing scenes, Y. threatens to expose Yahalom—who he has been secretly recording—to the Ministry of Culture. Yahalom’s community rallies around her; disgusted by Y.’s politics, they go to confront him on the precipice of a rock outcropping. Yahalom attempts suicide and Y. backs down. In that moment of release, a little girl from the town hugs him and tells him that he is “good,” providing the absolution that is the ultimate desire of Lapid’s work. Lapid’s crowning achievement, then, is no different from that of the Israeli cinema that he supposedly absconded from: the ability to glance and then to recoil.

Lapid wrote the script for Ahed’s Knee in two and a half weeks and filmed it in 18 days (Kindergarten Teacher took him between one and two years). He said that he felt like he was “boiling” while writing it. The question, then, is about that anger. Why is Lapid angry? One of Lapid’s core concerns is reckoning with the traumas the Israeli state inflicts on its citizens. This never amounts to anything close to a commitment to material politics, be it decolonization or reparations. The focus on symptoms here—which resembles conversations about the PTSD of Western soldiers—ultimately centers the Israeli subject in the fallout from state violence, in a filmic sleight of hand that confuses cause with effect. Lapid said that he feels “too close” to the film, that it’s inside him, and that he never wants to make another one like it.

Lapid also suggests that Ahed’s Knee is the closest he has gotten to destroying any divide between himself and his characters, adding that “people tend to speak about the prison of reality,” but that he prefers to work in the “prison of fiction.” What about the prison of prison, the holding pens not only for Ahed, her family, and her town but for more than a fifth of Palestinians: Can there even be an Israeli cinema that is not about Gaza? And yet, in review after review of this film, writers and curators have not engaged with Palestine. The reason is that films like this one scratch a long-dormant itch for some critics, a discomfort with Zionism’s self-narration but also an unwillingness to disrupt its maintenance.

This is the reason, in part, why the film industry is still so keen to promote Lapid’s latest work: Its dissemination contradicts its own message. Zionists will happily engage within its framework: Israel is built on shame and yet offers an essentially shameless society, a place where the burdens of your individual sins are shouldered by the state, in an exchange of allegiance for extractive profit. This lays bare the limitations of a thoughtless cultural approach: You can’t shame the unashamed into change, or more aptly, you can’t shame the material beneficiaries of a grand larceny into giving it all back. In the face of this, it would probably be more effective to boycott Ahed’s Knee than to write about it. That is, after all, what the Palestinian picket line is demanding of us—a boycott of Israeli cultural products on the basis of their complicity, not their artistic content.

Why write about Israeli cinema in the first place, then? It is a question I have asked of all who bestow this breathless coverage on Lapid, and who unblinkingly engage with his purported significance for the very people summarily excluded from their analyses. But I’m guilty here too, of something slightly different: writing about him to write about us.

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