When they dance

Nadav Lapid on Ahed’s Knee and his role in Antoine Barraud’s Madeleine Collins

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Filmmaker Y (Avshalom Pollak) with Yahalom David (Nur Fibak), an officer for the Ministry of Culture in Nadav Lapid’s tightly-wound musical drama Ahed’s Knee (Ha'berech)
Filmmaker Y (Avshalom Pollak) with Yahalom David (Nur Fibak), an officer for the Ministry of Culture in Nadav Lapid’s tightly-wound musical drama Ahed’s Knee (Ha'berech)

When I spoke with Antoine Barraud (who cast filmmakers Bertrand Bonello and Barbet Schroeder in Portrait Of The Artist) on Madeleine Collins for New York’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, I brought up Nadav Lapid’s role has in his latest film. In my conversation with the director of Ahed's Knee (Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner, as was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria) Nadav told me how it felt to be asked to act and that he was “obsessed” as a young boy with Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain, creating thoughts of wanting to become a dancer and have a band.

Nadav Lapid with Anne-Katrin Titze: “I was obsessed with West Side Story and I was also watching Singin’ in the Rain, etc.”
Nadav Lapid with Anne-Katrin Titze: “I was obsessed with West Side Story and I was also watching Singin’ in the Rain, etc.”

Ahed's Knee, a highlight in the Main Slate of the 59th New York Film Festival will open this weekend at Film at Lincoln Center with in-cinema post-screening Q&As with the director, moderated by Ira Sachs on Friday and Naomi Fry on Saturday. Film Comment Live: Cinema and the State: Nadav Lapid on Ahed’s Knee, a Free Conversation inside the Amphitheater of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center will take place on opening night at 8:30pm with A Cinema of Discontent director and scholar of Iranian cinema, Jamsheed Akrami, and others.

In Ahed's Knee, Israeli filmmaker Y (Avshalom Pollak) is casting his new project. It is about the Palestinian student activist Ahed Tamini and the threatening online response she received. Actors try out for the roles, arrive on a motorcycle in the rain, rip their stockings to expose the knee. We are in Y’s element, city life, those around eager to please him. A call from the deputy director of library divisions of the Ministry of Culture intrigues him and he accepts the invitation to show a film of his at the library of a remote desert village and do a Q&A.

Nadav Lapid on Y (Avshalom Pollak) with Yahalom David (Nur Fibak): “He reconnects to a kind of human instinct that maybe he lost.”
Nadav Lapid on Y (Avshalom Pollak) with Yahalom David (Nur Fibak): “He reconnects to a kind of human instinct that maybe he lost.”

In Ahed's Knee (screenplay consultant Haim Lapid, co-writer of Synonyms), Israeli filmmaker Y (Avshalom Pollak) is casting his new project. It is about the Palestinian student activist Ahed Tamini and the threatening online response she received. Actors try out for the roles, arrive on a motorcycle in the rain, rip their stockings to expose the knee. We are in Y’s element, city life, those around eager to please him. A call from the deputy director of library divisions of the Ministry of Culture intrigues him and he accepts the invitation to show a film of his at the library of a remote desert village and do a Q&A.

On the flight there, he films the clouds for his mother, a collaborator on his previous films, who is very ill. Maybe the new scenery will calm Y’s frayed nerves or even bring some new excitement. Which it does, but not how he expected. Yahalom David (Nur Fibak), the woman from the ministry, turns out to also be a local girl and her enthusiasm and overall mentality couldn’t be more different from her guest’s.

Lapid says it all with the clothes already. She wears a pale-yellow summer dress over a white T-shirt to make it all prim and provincial, he looks as if Leos Carax were his style icon, complete with the sunglasses, scruffy denim and black leather jacket. Both look out of place in the location, with each other and likely within themselves.

Nadav Lapid on Y (Avshalom Pollak): “Throughout the movie, the physical gestures, mainly dance, are coming also in a place of or are a response to the failure of words.”
Nadav Lapid on Y (Avshalom Pollak): “Throughout the movie, the physical gestures, mainly dance, are coming also in a place of or are a response to the failure of words.”

When Yahalom serves Y the official form he has to fill out about the subjects his movie addresses and the subjects he will be discussing in the post-screening discussion (no other questions allowed to be addressed!) the State’s reach tightens around him.

The young woman and the desert trigger his storyteller instinct, his rage about the state of affairs in the country and his personal pain. Tales from his military service flash into view, including dance numbers and a moral riddle. Is he the one tempting or tempted in the desert? Is this harmless-looking woman spilling the beans, holding the strings to his future career or is she a victim herself?

From Paris, Nadav Lapid joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Ahed’s Knee and his role in Antoine Barraud’s Madeleine Collins.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Nadav! I spoke with Antoine Barraud last week about Madeleine Collins, where you play a forger who gives identities to people. How did that come about? Did you enjoy playing that role?

Nadav Lapid: Actually for me it was the first time I was playing in a movie. Over the years I got several suggestions, but I never saw myself as an actor and was always too busy. I didn’t know Antoine, but when he contacted me I was in a kind of curious day, curious mood. And I told myself why not. He told me “I wrote a role thinking about you! It’s the precise role for you.”

Nadav Lapid on Guns N' Roses’s Welcome To The Jungle in the desert: “These female soldiers in a way surpass the classical male imaginary, because they become themselves warriors.”
Nadav Lapid on Guns N' Roses’s Welcome To The Jungle in the desert: “These female soldiers in a way surpass the classical male imaginary, because they become themselves warriors.”

So now I tried to understand what does it mean? I thought, okay, maybe he wrote something about a very artistic filmmaker. And then I read the script and I was a bit surprised by it. It was a really fascinating experience. In the beginning, before the shooting began it looked to me like the easiest thing on earth to do, like to play.

I was regretting the fact that I wasted my life directing movies, while you can obtain glory and beautiful clothes so easily. But I must say that when the shooting began, it wasn’t so easy anymore. It became harder and harder. It was a nice experience, I hope the result is okay.

AKT: You were great. It’s so interesting that it’s all about identity and giving others a new identity. Which is very much also something you do in your films. I think maybe that’s why Antoine thought about you.

NL: Good point.

AKT: Your protagonist Y in Ahed’s Knee, he lands in the desert and there seems to be a wishing, a hoping for a new identity that he could find. Instead he finds something else. Maybe a new identity as well, but not one he expected. It’s not an escape at all, it’s more of a pushing him back to what he already is. Am I correct with that?

Y (Avshalom Pollak) with Yahalom David (Nur Fibak)
Y (Avshalom Pollak) with Yahalom David (Nur Fibak)

NL: Yeah, I totally agree. It’s one of the most interesting readings that I heard of the film. It’s true, Israel is a small country, even to escape is harder. But there’s something in this going to the desert, leaving everything behind you, landing in the no-man’s land, a place where no one lives, finding yourself confronted with this landscape, with this scene in the sand. That in a way might be for finding yourself in someone new.

New people, headless exotic women on Tinder. It looks like the beginning of this adventure. And you’re right that in a way, maybe at the very end after all of this fails, he reconnects to a kind of human instinct that maybe he lost. A human instinct inside him that maybe he lost with this permanent resistance and reject in which he lives.

AKT: As you say, the moment of headless exotic women on Tinder is what he thinks he can find, but he finds something totally different and much more meaningful for him. Your film is very much about body parts. In the title there’s the knee, later there are the feet. One gesture I found actually the most interesting of them all takes place after he arrives in the desert village. He does this head gesture, as in: Now you lie next to me!

NL: Yes [Nadav makes the gesture].

Nadav Lapid on Y (Avshalom Pollak) with Yahalom David (Nur Fibak): “He thinks he is hosting a young, charming, kind of seductive local woman.”
Nadav Lapid on Y (Avshalom Pollak) with Yahalom David (Nur Fibak): “He thinks he is hosting a young, charming, kind of seductive local woman.”

AKT: That’s the movement at the core of the movie. Can you tell me more about this moment?

NL: In a way he is hosting on the bed, which is not his bed but temporarily his bed. He thinks he is hosting a young, charming, kind of seductive local woman. But actually he is hosting on his bed …

AKT: … the Ministry of Culture!

NL: Exactly. The corpus of the State. And he invites to his bed the Israeli regime.

AKT: While watching, I was wondering if you liked musicals as a child.

NL: I was addicted to West Side Story, actually. Till I was maybe eight years old, I was convinced that I’d become a dancer and / that’ll have my band. I was obsessed with West Side Story and I was also watching Singin’ in the Rain, etc. Because you identified those motifs of musical there?

AKT: Yes, you capture something that the great Hollywood musicals have, where the emotions are explained to you a second time. Fred Astaire says something, then shifts into movement and suddenly you understand on a more visceral level what’s going on. Tell me about the gender separated soldier dance number!

Ahed's Knee poster
Ahed's Knee poster

NL: I think in general in my movies, and in this movie it’s clear I like when people are dancing. Who they are when they dance, what they want when they dance, their thoughts when they dance, their idea of existence when they dance, their imagination. Basically they dance who they are. By dancing they are addressing the camera and the spectator and they say look at us, this is who we are.

For me in this scene in a way the first part is the factual part, the historical part, the soldiers dancing. These male soldiers dancing a very chaotic, wild, unorganized, un-choreographed dance. The second part is the imaginary of these female soldiers. But these female soldiers in a way surpass the classical male imaginary, because they become themselves warriors. They become themselves dominant, they control themselves the situation and they put in danger this guy sitting there. In the end they assassinate the one who was fantasizing about them, a bit like amazons, you know.

At a certain moment he’s driving in this car and then he imagines how the driver is going back home and dancing to his young wife. Suddenly his gaze, his point of view is the vision of the other one. Throughout the movie, the physical gestures, mainly dance, are coming also in a place of or are a response to the failure of words.

AKT: Lovely Day, the song, takes over at a moment. I do want to ask about the words. You use a lot of repetition. “I’ll get straight to the point” is repeated over and over again. Later on “You are good, you are kind” is repeated. Also Y saying to the woman who hosts him “keep going, keep going.” It’s like a cumulative tale where with every repetition something changes, something adds to it.

NL: Yeah, I totally agree. I think, maybe it’s based on two things. One about this desperate desire for details, the desperate necessity to say everything.

AKT: That’s beautifully put.

NL: In a way the only path to redeem yourself or to redeem your country or maybe to redeem the mother or to save is by not missing one single word. If you miss one single word everything is lost. The only way you can approach the existing of things, the only way you can have a real dialogue, the only way you can communicate, the only way you can reveal yourself to another or reveal yourself to yourself is by describing everything, is by counting everything, is by detailing everything.

AKT: The rotten bell peppers and everything.

Nadav Lapid on Y (Avshalom Pollak): “I think, maybe it’s based on two things. One about this desperate desire for details, the desperate necessity to say everything."
Nadav Lapid on Y (Avshalom Pollak): “I think, maybe it’s based on two things. One about this desperate desire for details, the desperate necessity to say everything."

NL: Exactly. In a way once you missed one word, you missed everything and your whole project is doomed to failure. So this is one thing. The other thing is that the words, they have a double role. There’s signification, but clearly also talking is an action.

AKT: With a rhythm.

NL: And I think the whole movie is also about rhythm. When he gives his final crazy monologue, it’s about saying this and this and this, but it’s also about tatatatatatatatat. In this sense it’s a kind of musical drama, even when he’s talking it’s a musical drama.

AKT: Thank you so much for this and for a powerful film.

NL: Thanks so much, it was a pleasure. Ciao!

Ahed’s Knee opens at Film at Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater on Friday, March 18. In-cinema Q&As with Nadav Lapid will take place following the 6:00pm screenings on March 18 and Saturday, March 19.

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