Life & Culture

The filmmaker turning a critical eye on Israel

Israeli film director Nadav Lapid has won awards for his movies which, he tells James Mottram, scrutinise the place he calls home


There’s an argument to be made that Nadav Lapid is one of the most exciting Israeli filmmakers to emerge in the last few years. His 2014 movie Haganenet was remade in America as The Kindergarten Teacher, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Then, his 2019 film Synonyms won the Berlin Film Festival’s coveted Golden Bear. This year, his follow-up Ahed’s Knee — which plays this week at the London Film Festival — took a share of the Jury prize along with Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, with Tilda Swinton.

“I remember the night I got the Golden Bear, we were already in the kind of beginning of pre-production of Ahed’s Knee,” he reflects, when we meet over Zoom during Cannes. “And I suddenly had a moment of doubt: this is not the movie that the Golden Bear winner is supposed to do. At least [make] a bigger European co-production with some American star to decorate it! And I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not a good film to do’, and then ten minutes later, I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not a good film to do, but this is also a very good reason to do it.’”

Significantly, the film was penned after the death of his mother, who had been his editor on all his previous movies, and the production was dominated by what he calls an “urgency”. Writing the script in two weeks, he was shooting in less than a year. When he filmed, he shot it over 18 days and edited it in two months. “I didn’t know at the beginning if it’s a short movie, medium-length movie, because there’s something apparently very condensed in it. It’s one afternoon, one evening, 17 scenes. Usually in feature films… in Synonyms there were 65 [scenes] and it’s not a lot. I didn’t know what this is, but I had to do it.”

This punchy approach gives Ahed’s Knee its vitality. Trade paper Variety called it “filmmaking as hostage-taking” for its angry, aggressive mode of auto-fiction. In the film, a successful director Y (Avshalom Pollak) arrives in the arid Arvada region, and the desert town of Sapir, to screen one of his movies. Already, his mind is on his next project: a video installation about Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian protestor who was jailed in 2018 for slapping a solider. An Israeli politician suggested she be shot in the knee to ensure she never walked again.

When he settles into his apartment, he’s introduced to Yahalom (Nur Fibak), the deputy director of the Ministry of Culture’s Libraries Department, who arrives with a list of topics that he must not speak about when he addresses the audience. Y is asked to sign a form to guarantee his compliance, this is a reference it seems to the “loyalty in culture” bill, which arrived in 2018 and set out to give the Israeli culture minister power to cut funding to artists and institutions for work that might contravene the principles of the state.

While Y chooses his moment to rail against state censorship in devastating fashion, Lapid is surprisingly cool on the topic. “I would say that that maybe for me the strongest censorship in Israel is the self-censorship,” he says. He gives an example: the students he taught last year in an Israeli film school. He loved these “intelligent, educated, curious” pupils, but was surprised at how they “reject and despise” political cinema. “They will tell you that it’s boring… for instance, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Above all, it’s boring.

“I think that in Israel…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. And in a way I think this is the hard thing.

“On one hand, there is a group of artists who are determined — I’m not talking about clichés of political freedom — to really reflect in their art the perversion and the madness around them. And on the other end, there is a terrible regime, a stubborn regime with an iron fist.”

And yet the 46-year-old Lapid is not bemoaning his lot in life. “Jewish Israeli directors don’t have any reason to be afraid today,” he says, plainly. Is he not concerned how Ahed’s Knee will be received in Israel? “I’ve seen some reaction [already], I mean, this film is going to be stormy. But, I mean, come on! I’m not walking in the streets of Tel Aviv, looking behind my back, being afraid that someone will stop me!”

Before making Synonyms, he went to Paris for a year to begin pre-production (the story dealt with a young man who heads to the French capital to escape Israel).

“I remember from Paris, Israel looked to me like a kind of pretty crazy place. But when I got back to Israel, it looked to me like home,” he says. “I always have the feeling that when I look at a tree there, I look at an Israeli tree — not just a tree. And when you gain a certain distance, you see things differently. If your aim is to see the thing as it is, knowing today that maybe it’s impossible…it’s hard to tell if it’s better to be too close, or too distant.”

As much as he loves Israel, Lapid is also not afraid to lash out at those that fund him (although he makes it very clear that only two per cent of the budget is “Israeli money”, from the state).

“Do you think if I get money from Israeli government, I should praise the Israeli government? It’s a very strange concept saying, ‘How dare you use our cinema budget in making a critical film about us?’ I mean, how dare I? How wouldn’t I dare to? I mean, I think it would be totally disrespectful towards Israeli money if I would have used it to do a movie in which I don’t believe.”

He also notes that whatever critical barbs he aims at Israel, he also turns on himself. “Whatever I say about them, I say them also about myself because, of course, I am Israeli and I have exactly the same diseases, the same problems.” He feels the issue of censorship, of oppression, is a way to shed light on the DNA, “the collective soul”, of the country. “I think that the problem is that there’s something sick in the Israeli soul. We are not the only one in the world, who are sick of course.”

It all adds up to Lapid being a filmmaker of fascinating complexities and contradictions. “I always felt that like being a filmmaker in Israel is standing on the hill and watching the valley burning. And I always tell myself that one day, in a very natural way, the fire is going to arrive also to us. Maybe it’s a positive thing that happens, because also when you make cinema, it’s not like writing a poem. I mean when you make cinema, you deal with trucks, with metal, with people, with money. You cannot keep the real distance from reality. In general, it’s not bad the artist will bite the hand that feeds.”

Ahed’s Knee screens at the London Film Festival on October 15 and 17. For more details see:

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