I did not much want to write about "Ahed’s Knee." Not because I didn’t like it. I did. Not because it isn’t worthy of discussion. It is. I didn’t want to write about "Ahed’s Knee" because I felt to write about it would be an exercise in talking to myself.
"Ahed’s Knee" concerns an Israeli filmmaker named Y (Avshalom Pollak) who arrives in a small town for a screening of his new movie. There he meets and flirts with a Ministry of Culture worker named Yahalom (Nur Fibak, practically jumping off the screen), who informs him that he must stick to certain subjects, lest he offend the censors. Y does not take this well.
But what is he to do? There is no beating the state. His film is not screening for millions, thousands, or even hundreds. It is a few dozen people who file into a library to talk, to discuss. Y is angry, beaten down. He is incensed at his audience. He is notably traveling alone, his few calls and texts one-sided, one way or another. His mother, who works on his films, is too ill to accompany him. Who will he share his passions with when she is gone? More so, forget worrying about the powers that be. The truths that Y wants to share might not be ones that the people are even interested in hearing.
The film, helmed passionately by Nadav Lapid, is inspired, energetic, and sly in its humor. It is not simply told by way of its protagonist, but often seen through his eyes. In an early scene we see Y using his iPhone to film the world from the seat of his airplane. Having flown before, we know he can be capturing nothing that others haven’t captured a million times before. But then he convinces the pilot to let him film from the cockpit, and the screen takes on a new shape. We have not seen this angle before. Same goes for the framing of an early conversation between Y and Yahalom. I was thrilled by what I was seeing, then disappointed that I had no one to share it with.
There is a deeper text here than my pedestrian thoughts on the state of art and film today. This movie is a ferocious critique of life in modern day Israel. It is clearly a personal story for Lapid. It aims at something that I am not informed enough to understand on the level of others. I have never been to Israel. I am not Jewish. The story will resonate with different people in different ways. But what I keep coming back to is the way the film considers what we expose ourselves to, and what we’re able to take away from those experiences.
The so-called cultural reckoning brought on by a global pandemic that has killed nearly 1 million people in the U.S. has been oversold in some areas and underplayed in others. With people understandably unable or anxious to go into movie theaters, streamers have taken the reins and held on tight. Early on we felt we did not have enough to watch, now there is no possible way to keep up. But this is not solely a matter of being inundated with quality films and television. This is a matter of content as a means of contentment. It is catered to your liking. The algorithm knows what you want. Netflix has made some very good movies that would not have otherwise been produced, but as a business it is less interested in expanding your horizons than in keeping your subscription.
Personally, I can’t help but still be excited by what just arrives on my television every week. The teenage version of me, the one who grew up in a small town 90 minutes outside of the “big city” of Knoxville, Tennessee, would be thrilled to have access to movies like "The Power of the Dog" or "Drive My Car." We’d have been lucky if the local video store (which doubled, and perhaps functioned primarily as a tanning salon), had a single copy of either of those titles. But those movies would have been seen widely. My mom might have thought "The Power of the Dog" slow, but she would have watched it and thought about it. She certainly would have never considered turning it off mid-way. And she wouldn’t have had trouble understanding the ending, either.
"Ahed’s Knee" is not like "The Power of the Dog." The local video store wouldn’t have had this one. If I was lucky, I would caught it on IFC. None of my friends then would have seen it. None of my friends now will, either. As for my mom, she only watches movies these days when I visit and put them in front of her. Otherwise, she just watches TV.
I am glad "Ahed’s Knee" exists, but so sad that it exists for so few people. Again, the lack of fanfare for a movie like this isn’t unusual. This was never going to be seen by a wide audience. What I can’t seem to let go of is the notion that a wide audience doesn’t seem to exist for much of anything, anymore. If "West Side Story" cannot draw a crowd, what hope is there for "Ahed’s Knee"? I believe Lapid will make more movies, but forgive me if I am skeptical as to whether they will be placed before an audience even as large as this one is receiving. I would not be shocked to hear his next project is an eight-part series with Apple TV.
Life is challenging, and generally, I’m not sure most people ever really wanted to be challenged by film or art or music. I don’t think that’s changed much over the years. What has changed is the bar for what one considers challenging. The problem with Marvel movies is not that they are bad, it is that they are mostly good, and that there are so many of them. I don’t blame anyone for wanting something easy (Gerard Butler movies are to me what a pint of ice cream is for others after a long day), but selfishly, I wish there were more people interested in trying the hard stuff, too. If Wanda Sykes had made that joke about "The Power of the Dog" at the Oscars 10 years ago (when she would have made more sense as a host), I probably would have laughed. This time, I felt a bit stunned. Do even the Oscars not like movies much anymore? It certainly felt that way during the ceremony.
I still love movies. The kid growing up in the small town who lacked ability to travel could travel each time he visited the video store, or the library for that matter (the general decline in literary awareness is readily apparent in how people respond to certain movies, but that’s another conversation). Movies have always been there for me. The good ones and the bad ones stay with me. It is only the unadventurous I forget.
In the case of "Ahed’s Knee," my experience will almost certainly be shared only with the screen. At one time that wouldn’t have bothered me, but now, I wonder if most of what I see will take on this same experience. What’s the last movie you quoted heavily with your friends? I can think of maybe one from the last year. Maybe it will all work out. I hope so. Either way, I’ll still be watching.
"Ahed’s Knee "is currently playing at the Sie FilmCenter in Denver.