The first decade of Nadav Lapid’s career has been a rapid ascension to the top.
The Israeli filmmaker premiered his debut feature at Locarno (2011’s Policeman), became the hit of Cannes Critics’ Week in 2014 with his The Kindergarten Teacher (later remade with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the lead role), and then landed the prestigious Golden Bear in 2019 with Synonyms.
Now, he is appearing in Cannes Competition for the first time with Ahed’s Knee, the ostensibly simple, and once again autobiographical, story of a filmmaker (played by Avshalom Pollak) on a trip to a small Israeli desert town to accompany a film screening. Once there, he encounters Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a worker for the Ministry of Culture who acts as his local guide, but he suspects may have a more sinister agenda via a letter she asks him to sign.
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As you’d expect from Lapid, the film contains some searing critique of the Israeli government, but as he explains to us below, his love for his home country continues to bubble beneath the surface in his work. It’s an uncomfortable watch that should provoke some intriguing discourse.
Following the opening night Annette premiere, Ahed’s Knee is the second film to play in this year’s Competition, screening on the morning of July 7. Kinology is handling sales Lapid is also premiering a short film at Cannes, The Star.
DEADLINE: You’ve said this film was written “with a sense of urgency” – describe that to me.
NADAV LAPID: The script was written in just two weeks. Synonyms took me 18 months, The Kindergarten Teacher took 15 months, which is a normal time to write scripts. This was not even close to anything I had done before. It was not only the duration of writing, it was only 11 months after I wrote the script that we started shooting, in today’s cinema that is very fast. The consequence of this process was that there was no time to meditate, to ask people for their advice, it was constantly moving forward. We identified that the urgency was the essence of the thing.
The movie was shot with a very small budget. I had just won the Golden Bear and I could have made it totally differently. But we went with a small budget and shot in 18 days. But that wasn’t 18 full days. This was December in Israel and those are the shortest days of the year, just nine hours of light, you begin shooting and the sun is already on the way down. It was like a simulation of death – you feel the end from the beginning. I would bet that there are no other movies [in Cannes competition] that were shot in such a small amount of days.
DEADLINE: It’s a very personal film…
LAPID: I started writing the movie one month after my mother passed away. She was the editor of my films, we were editing Synonyms together at the time. She had lung cancer and she passed away in June 2018, I finished the script in July.
DEADLINE: Another key theme is of course your relationship with Israel, and also the dynamic between the country’s government and its film industry. The film’s protagonist is highly critical towards Israel.
LAPID: I felt that the Israeli state had become unbearable for me. Synonyms was presented as very critical towards Israel, but then people watched it more deeply and said it was also a love song for Israel, and that it was ambivalent. I totally agree.
With this film, I decided I couldn’t bear the ambivalence anymore. I felt a necessity to be frontal. However, when I watched this movie I was still amazed that my intimacy towards Israel was sneaking in and penetrating the fame. I tried to be as direct and brutal and honest and sincere as I could be in the script. The truth is terrible. Now I’ve watched it, I feel it’s full of rage but also intimacy.
DEADLINE: Clearly you have rage directed towards the Israeli state, but you have returned to live there, and your film is even partially funded by the Israel government – how do you balance those feelings?
LAPID: In The Kindergarten Teacher I created this connection between the state of art and the political state. I always believed that the Israeli story is not about a certain political constellation, it’s the story of a collective soul. Because of the propaganda system, Israelis can be so blind. I feel like it’s not enough to open their eyes, to shake their bodies, to hit them on the head – you’re fighting against huge forces.
But I travel a lot with my work and sometimes when I get back to Israel, I look at a mural, and I see myself. This is the true Nadav. When I walk in the streets of Tel Aviv, where I was born, I feel it.
In my movies an important thing is that the main characters – the director in Ahed’s Knee – are not better than the people they try to criticize. They suffer from the same disease: they are violent, they are brutal, they have no patience, they can be cruel or mean or ruthless. Everything I say about my fellow countrymen I say also about myself.
DEADLINE: Despite the main character’s fury towards Israel, the film’s agenda feels more nuanced. There’s one particularly explosive outburst of criticism that leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable, perhaps regardless of personal political opinions.
LAPID: My films talk a lot about politics but it is not easy to define them as political. They talk about people who have political opinions but it’s not clearly a “left-wing movie”, it’s not one an opposition party in Israel would show at their political reunion to try and strengthen their points.
Take the soldier scenes. The very existence of these soldiers is a catastrophe, but at the same time the camera admires them. It evaluates manhood, brotherhood, masculine beauty. I don’t think the movie has a political position. I think it has an existential aesthetical position.
DEADLINE: On a personal level, I knew I sympathized with some of the main character’s views but I found myself liking him less than Yahalom (Nur Fibak), who is part of the ‘system’…
LAPID: It’s interesting for me when the ‘wrong’ ones are nicer than the ‘right’ ones.
DEADLINE: You wrote this film in 2018 when culturally things in Israel were as bad as they’ve been for a long time. Miri Regev was still culture minister and was putting in place restrictions on filmmaking like the letter that is crucial to your movie. And yet Ahed’s Knee still received government support…
LAPID: We got support from the Israeli Film Fund but only completion financing, after it was already shot. We took a decision not to apply. I wouldn’t say I was afraid someone would arrest me in the middle of the night, but I was worried that if the contents of the script would be revealed before it was shot, it would be easy to make the task almost impossible.
I’m not so interested in Miri Regev. I think she was a terrible minister of culture, but mainly because she doesn’t like movies, filmmakers, artists… it’s like a health minister who hates doctors.
For me it’s logical that the Israeli right wing says, “We govern this country, we’re the majority, it’s unthinkable that all cinema is made by the left wing”, I don’t think that filmmakers should benefit from total liberty that most of the population are deprived of.
DEADLINE: I also saw a familiar face turn up, Yoram Honig from the Jerusalem Film Fund. I didn’t realize he acted.
LAPID: It’s funny because people know him as the serious guy that he is. And in this movie he’s dancing. He brings with him this singular tone of a guy from this deserted land without seeming stupid. You cannot despise him. It brings a contrast to the director character who despises everyone, aside from his mother.
DEADLINE: What’s the situation like now in the Israeli film industry? Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer the majority leader in government and is facing a corruption trial. Are things looking up?
LAPID: I don’t like this distinction with the film industry [and wider society]. I think the worst thing of the Miri Regev period was not the conflict with the state, but was self-censorship. Directors and film institutions accepted these limitations. There’s a strong element of survival in the Israeli industry. It was easy to manipulate [by the government].
From time to time I teach cinema. This year I’m teaching in Israel’s most prestigious film school, Sam Spiegel, and it was pretty melancholic how without exception all of my students thought that political movies were inferior. They totally accept this super strange and perverted idea that, while your life is clearly influenced by the politics of your country, you shouldn’t talk about this in movies, you should make movies about love, etc. This belief that there is something forbidden about enquiring with your movie into the Israeli political state of mind is an instinct that exists among most of the decision makers in the Israeli Film Fund etcetera. Not all of it, but part of Israeli cinema is still afraid of its own shadow.
DEADLINE: That’s scary, because you’d expect younger filmmakers to be the most politically activated. It sounds like the government has been successful in repressing that.
LAPID: They repressed it but they repressed the real politics in Israel. What is happening with Netanyahu is almost meaningless. I don’t see much difference with the new government. The most powerful tool is that they made real political issues boring issues; Israelis are bored. So when it comes to films, it’s a totally suicidal thing to make a film about a boring subject, we want exciting topics.
The main tragedy of Palestinians is that people seem to be bored by it. It was such an essential and symbolic story back in the 1970s and 80s, back then any intellectual who wanted to say something about the world used Palestine as an example. And then today, everyone talks about Black Lives Matter, but I am sure that every Palestinian would love to be American, black or white.
DEADLINE: The film begins with your main character casting a fictional movie about Ahed Tamimi (the Palestinian activist), hence the title. I’m curious about whether you considered making that film?
LAPID: No. In general in my movies there are hardly any Palestinians. I think it’s because I’m totally fascinated by this research into Israel’s soul. I feel that the Palestinians are already present inside the Israeli soul. When Israelis look in the mirror, they also see the reflections of Palestinians. The feelings of fear, anxiety, hate, guilt, otherness. It’s the shadow that accompanies Israelis whenever they go.
DEADLINE: Do you know what your next film will be?
LAPID: I want it to be something totally different. I’ve made four feature films and several shorts in a decade. Always autobiographical, always political, always physical cinema. Maybe becoming more radical. I started to write a script to contradict my own films, but the more it advances the more the same obsessions penetrate.
There is also a relatively big TV project that I’m involved in in the U.S.. What do I know about TV? What do I know about the U.S.? We’re working on the script now. I can’t say much more.