Weak at the Knees
All wars are also fought in images. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes a steady influx of photographs and videos on social media. We in the West attend the bloodshed primarily as consumers, a giddy audience for funny TikToks and livestream gore alike. This is one consequence of contemporary warfare: the illusion of participation.
Russia may be Ukraine’s military superior, but in the eyes of Western observers, Ukraine’s propaganda machine is beating Russia’s to a pulp. Already mythic is the “Ghost of Kyiv,” an ace fighter pilot who reportedly shot down six Russian jets in just one day. Other fabled heroes include the Snake Island soldiers who, rather than surrendering, told a Russian warship to go fuck itself; and the hot girls of Tinder who tricked horny Russian soldiers into revealing key strategic movements. Whether any of these stories are legitimate is immaterial. (We already know that some of them are not.) The truth matters less than the valorization of an underdog, the embodiment of a national character—the best example being, of course, President Zelensky, whose background in performance has served him well.
Another potential talisman emerged in the early days of the war: a young girl, in red pants and pink boots, standing up to a soldier twice her size. The video was everywhere, racking up twelve million views and eight hundred thousand likes on the TikTok account @staystrongukrainee before being deleted. On Twitter, one caption read: “Brave 8-year-old Ukrainian girl, c0nfronts [sic] a Russian Soldier telling him to go back to his country.” The young girl screams in the soldier’s face and clenches her fist as if to strike him. He is dressed in full military garb, helmet and Kevlar vest, with one hand braced on the grip of an assault rifle. Here is yet another image of David and Goliath.
But there is a frustrating fact for the eager consumer of content about the war in Ukraine: the girl is not Ukrainian at all. Her name is Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian activist from Nabi Saleh. In the video, she is attempting to intervene in the arrest of her older brother. The incident occurred in 2012 and went plenty viral at the time, sparking Tamimi’s career as an activist. A similar video made the rounds a few years later, when Tamimi’s brother was arrested for throwing stones. (This is a common charge leveled against Palestinian children. In 2016, around 375 were imprisoned under Israeli military detention for the same crime.) Later in Tamimi’s life, after her fourteen-year-old cousin Mohammad was shot in the face point-blank with a rubber bullet, she retaliated by slapping an Israeli soldier who was sent to her home. Tamimi’s house was then raided in the middle of the night, and she was sentenced to eight months in jail. One Israeli politician, Bezalel Smotrich, tweeted that she should instead have been shot in the knee: “That would have put her on house arrest for the rest of her life.”
This quote is what inspired Nadav Lapid’s new film, Ahed’s Knee. Or rather: this is what inspired its title. Ahed’s Knee has little to do with Ahed Tamimi or the struggle for Palestinian liberation in general. Instead, it focuses on a filmmaker who wants to make a film about Ahed Tamimi but can’t quite figure out how. Lapid must have encountered a similar problem, and so, it seems, decided instead to make a film about himself.
Tamimi often suffers from this kind of appropriation, as do Palestinians in general. The virality of her image and materiality of her conditions are two separate things. As a Ukrainian, her resistance might arouse the pity of the West, move some money from civilians and politicians into the arms of the military and humanitarian NGOs. But as a Palestinian, no such pity is likely to occur. Brutality is perceived as the norm in Israel-Palestine—the violence as always reciprocal. One party strikes, the other strikes back. Western media is actively hostile to the thought of portraying this conflict as something uneven, to speaking of invasion or occupation (or even ethnic cleansing). Last spring was a recent highpoint in Palestinian visibility in the United States, with forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and airstrikes on Gaza making the rounds on social media. But this visibility didn’t lead to any material changes: Senator Bernie Sanders’s attempt to halt $735 million in arms sales to Israel fell flat, and worse, several bills were passed during this time to criminalize the BDS movement.
Lapid is conscious of Tamimi’s symbolic malleability. She is the perfect figurehead for a film like Ahed’s Knee, a film apparently inspired by the “collective Israeli soul.” In an interview, Lapid claimed that “when Israelis look in the mirror, they also see the reflections of Palestinians. The feelings of fear, anxiety, hate, guilt, and otherness. It’s the shadow that accompanies Israelis wherever they go.” This is his reasoning for not including Palestinians in his films: they are already implicated in the Israeli character. “Shadow” is telling here. It describes the perfect imperial subject: one permanently tethered to its master, imprisoned, grounded, disembodied.
Nabi Saleh is a small village located in the West Bank, with a population of about six hundred. It has a history of peaceful protest, slaps and stones notwithstanding. Its perception as a non-threat yet again serves the film and its dedication to Israel’s soul. Ahed Tamimi is something to internalize, an image of guilt, a face in the mirror trapped safely behind the glass. (A different film might be Mohammed Deif’s Gun.) Pacifism is a kind of shadow action, in that it is deployed to counter acts of material violence—in Tamimi’s case, the encroaching settlement of Halamish. She protests and, in response, she is arrested and thrown in jail, her house raided over one hundred times. Ahed’s proverbial knee is therefore imagined as a site of total impotence, celebrated here not as a fulcrum of Palestinian resistance but a receptacle for Israeli bullets.
Let me briefly explain what Ahed’s Knee is actually about. Yud, Lapid’s author-insert, is a middle-aged director who just won big at the Berlin film festival. (Lapid’s previous film, Synonyms, took home the Golden Bear in 2019.) Now he is casting Ahed’s Knee, a film with neither concept nor funding. After a brief audition sequence, Yud travels to a small settlement in the Arava, having been invited to introduce a screening of one of his earlier films by a local arts representative, Yahalom. She is a fresh-faced young woman whom we sense Yud would quite like to devour. They flirt during their first encounter—Yud in that manic, disaffected way that only a male artist can. He makes his thinking clear: Does she know Battleship Potemkin? No. Would I still fuck her? Yes.
Yud is in a state of depression. His mother is dying of lung cancer—the condition that killed Lapid’s mother in 2018. Yud’s mother helps write his films; Lapid’s edited his. He sends her video updates from his travels: landscapes and sunsets accompanied by small anecdotes. But there is some other anger bubbling within Yud, one that threatens to boil over at any moment. He is disgusted with the Israeli state. When Yahalom asks him to sign a form as a prerequisite for introducing his film—a form that essentially censors Yud, confining his topics of discussion to a pre-approved list—he senses an opportunity to expose this suppression.
It’s a strange gambit. Yud takes Yahalom out into the desert while his movie screens and begins to break down the form’s conceit: “Suppose I want to discuss a nationalist, racist, sadistic, abject Jewish state . . . A state that is a deadly, congenital or contagious disease for its citizens,” he asks. “You’d be rejected and blacklisted,” Yahalom responds. He captures her on tape, recording her admission that the state is censorious and antagonistic toward the arts, and threatens to send it to the news, effectively ending Yahalom’s career. As he rants and raves, the camerawork becomes more frantic, a stylistic continuation of the over-kinetic Synonyms which now presses the threshold of absurdity. Equally absurd are the multiple musical sequences in the film: Yud dancing in the desert, IDF girls doing disco, or the audition for the role of Ahed Tamimi requiring that actresses sing “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Such silliness comes to a head when the local townspeople exit the film screening to find Yahalom distraught, contemplating suicide at the edge of a cliff. Her little sister bargains with Yud: “Let her go and take me.” (What?) Then the young girl says, “You are good,” which causes Yud to break down in tears. Smash-cut to him flying home. End film. Award Cannes Jury Prize.
It should be clear by now that Lapid is attempting something like satire, but the proximity of the satirical object to its reality—and its distance from Israel’s gravest crimes—means that the film is foremost a narcissistic project: for Israelis, a mirror; for Palestinians, a tomb. If Lapid is chastising a certain Tel Avivian liberal artist figure (including himself), one that fetishizes the Palestinain body (thus the allusion to Claire’s Knee), for their self-serving adherence to performativity, how exactly does the film distinguish itself from that same failing? Much like the invocation of a pacifist Tamimi, the ultimate goal of the satire in Ahed’s Knee is guilt, which, in its own way, is a kind of victimhood.
For all the film’s absurdities, deliberate and not, what sticks out most is the fact that Ahed’s Knee received funding from the Israeli government: logos for the Israel Film Fund and its subsidiaries open the film, playing as a kind of sight gag upon repeat viewings. Lapid has downplayed the IFF’s involvement, stating that he only took the money once the film was completed—which is to say he only used a few of the master’s tools to dismantle its house.
The IFF has certain policies about the kinds of films eligible to receive funding. One is the designation of those films as “Israeli” rather than Palestinian. (Another means by which Ahed’s Knee colonizes that eponymous Palestinian body.) I would be curious to know what other requirements, if any, the IFF imposed on Lapid. One of the film’s more questionable decisions is to position the Israel Defense Forces as a kind of farce. In an elongated flashback sequence, Yud tells the story of his time in the army. He was stationed on the Syria-Lebanon border when Israel occupied Lebanon, chasing the Palestine Liberation Organization toward oblivion. Not that the PLO are named. In fact, no enemy is ever shown onscreen. All we see are the beautiful IDF soldiers as they participate in a highly sexualized ritual suicide—down on their knees to receive a face full of (fake) cyanide tablets. At the peak of their torment, the leader finally reveals: “The war, cyanide, it’s all a joke.” Occupation is just for show. Or worse, it’s a mode of psychological torture enacted foremost on the perpetrator. In this sequence and throughout the film, Israel is both villain and victim: nothing and no one else exists outside Lapid’s solipsistic soulscape.
Perhaps there was no censorship. Perhaps Lapid pulled a fast one on those philistines at the IFF, took their money and spat in their face. But if Lapid is an artist so successful that, as he has implied, he no longer requires Israeli funding to get his films made, then why collaborate with the very same governmental body he so despises? What was stopping the completion of the real Ahed’s Knee, that impossible film object seeking to appropriate an image that already exists? In the film Lapid did make, Yud watches the 2012 video of Ahed Tamimi on his phone. It is a more powerful, clear-headed, and informative indictment of the “racist, sadistic, abject” Israeli state than Lapid’s entire two-hour project.
Ahed’s Knee can be read as specifically criticizing former culture minister Miri Regev, but Lapid concedes that Regev was not evil for censorship. Rather, her crime was disinterest. “I think she was a terrible minister of culture, but mainly because she doesn’t like movies, filmmakers, artists.” He continued: “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.”
In the context of slaps and stones against drones and domes, self-censorship is difficult to distinguish from cowardice. And certainly, the displacement of one’s sins through satire positions self-flagellation (though I would call this film self- something else) as a kind of martyrdom, both ironically and not. But this endless egotism provides another problem: for all its vitriol, Ahed’s Knee is always, at all times, reproducing Israel. In criticizing a national identity, it also constructs one, positing Israel as something distinct and separate from an increasingly disappeared Palestine—a disappearance the film takes part in. Lapid envisions an Israel whose problems are entirely internal, whose artists, like its soldiers, are mere players in a pasquinade. Such theater is state funded because it serves the state. It is a satire that ultimately mocks the Palestinian people.
“I think that in Israel,” Lapid has said, “a lot of people, including people who see themselves as left-wing, unconsciously they collaborate with the state, in all sorts of forms. Very, very dark.” Very dark indeed.