‘Ahed’s Knee’ is a semi-autobiographical tale of artistic license and Israeli censorship

The film, a bitter personal reflection on the “dumbing down” of Israel, comes to the Shattuck Cinemas on Friday.

Ahed’s Knee. Credit: Kino Lorber

In 2018, a Palestinian teenager named Ahed Tamimi served eight months in prison for slapping an Israeli soldier during a protest against settlement expansion near her home in the West Bank village of Nabi Salih. Video of the slapping incident went viral — perhaps because the freckle-faced, light-haired youngster didn’t look how Americans or Europeans imagined a Palestinian protester would look.

The incident is only tangential to Ha’berech (Ahed’s Knee), but Tamimi’s story still looms large over writer-director Nadav Lapid’s semi-autobiographical tale of government overreach, self-censorship, and personal responsibility. The film opens on Friday, March 25, at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

The mononymous Y (Avshalom Pollak) is a disillusioned filmmaker invited by the Israeli Ministry of Culture to attend a screening of his latest feature in the remote desert village of Sapir. Though busy casting his next production — the story of the aforementioned Tamimi, and the ominous suggestion made by a member of the Knesset that she should be shot in the kneecap — Y takes a break and sets off on what promises to be something less than the adventure of a lifetime.

Y is met at Sapir’s tiny regional airstrip by Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a young Ministry apparatchik who, in addition to making sure her visitor is comfortable and well fed, must get him to sign off on a list of topics the Ministry deems acceptable for the traditional post-screening Q&A session. She isn’t particularly enthusiastic about her assignment, but it’s part of the job — and none of Y’s soliloquizing about Sergei Eisenstein will change her mind. Heck, she hasn’t even heard of Eisenstein.

Not particularly pleased at the prospect of being muzzled, Y explains to Yahalom that the topic of his next production is “the relentless dumbing down” of Israel — a theme unlikely to be greeted warmly by the Ministry, which prefers recipients of their money to limit themselves to producing patriotic or family-friendly artistic statements. Nonetheless, he needs his Tamimi film to be funded: Will Y compromise his principles and accept the government’s terms?

Ahed’s Knee provides Lapid an opportunity to recreate some of his own experiences, including his long-ago service in an Army intelligence unit stationed close to the Syrian border and a 2018 trip to Sapir for the screening of his earlier (and much less controversial) feature The Kindergarten Teacher. Shortly after that screening, the Knesset considered a bill to forbid — in the director’s own words — “the funding of any artwork deemed unfaithful to the government.”

Lapid was able to circumvent the law with funding from French and German co-producers, and his rapid 18-day shooting schedule meant that by the time word of Ahed’s Knee and its controversial subject matter worked its way back to government offices the film was already in the can. The Ministry of Culture probably weren’t happy, but hopefully they were consoled after the film won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Sometimes national glory comes in unexpected forms.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.