Nadav Lapid was used to mining the past. With 2014’s “The Kindergarten Teacher,” he worked childhood poems into the script, while basing his Berlinale winning follow-up, “Synonyms,” on his early days in France after leaving Israel.
But with “Ahed’s Knee,” which premieres on July 7 in competition at Cannes, the filmmaker confronted uncharted terrain: his present day.
“This movie was one trembling gesture of urgency and movement — a kind of ode to the present, to the here and now,” Lapid said. “It took me two-weeks-and-a-half to write the script, whereas ‘Synonyms’ took me over a year. More than any other of my movies, this one is one unbroken gesture; it’s one movement, one brushstroke.”
Lapid poured his professional, political, and personal misgivings into the livewire film, which follows a filmmaker over the course of one day as he struggles with his mother’s imminent death while dealing with government officials hostile to his work.
“On the one hand, it’s my simplest movie,” he said. “Narratively, it’s like a Western: someone arrives at [a remote desert outpost], influences the place and is influenced by it, and then leaves. But formally, it’s the wildest thing I’ve done. It’s like a raw nerve, thrumming with emotional, political, ideological and aesthetical vibrations.”
The filmmaker began writing the project shortly after his Berlinale win in 2019, and kicked off production less than ten months later. “Producer Judith Lou Lévy and I wanted to respect the urgency of the project, even at the expense of additional financial resources,” Lapid said.
“[At the outset,] we set a deadline to start shooting and decided not to apply for any financing that would force us to miss it,” he continued. “And in January 2020, we shot the film over the course of 18 days. I don’t think there’s any other movie in the Cannes competition that shot for only 18 days!”
For all the ease with which the film came together, the shoot proved more difficult for Lapid.
“I suffered a lot on the set,” he said. “The movie is connected with the death of my mother, so in a way showing up on set each day felt like coming for a funeral. There’s something about [shooting in the] desert that reinforces this feeling of a blank canvas that you have to fill with all your chaos.”
Lapid felt an additional sense of whiplash when, after editing the project over the course of five short weeks, he delivered a nearly finished version in March 2020 — right as the world shut down. “I felt like Usain Bolt, running 95 meters in record time and then having to slow down for a year to finish the last 5,” he said. “I felt lost. I had an enormous shout strangled in me, and for one year I felt it inside.”
Sitting with a finished feature over the past 16 months, Lapid shot the short film “The Star,” which will play as a special screening at Cannes this year, and began work on both a new screenplay as well as a potential TV project.
Of the latter, he said: “It’s an adaptation of an American novel initiated by an important American TV producer. If it happens it will be my first experience in TV, my first experience in the U.S. — two things I know nothing about.”
For the time being, he’s readying his Cannes competition debut — to be voted upon by a juror with a personal connection to the filmmaker.
“Maggie Gyllenhaal [who starred in and produced the US remake of “The Kindergarten Teacher”] is going to be on the jury,” Lapid said. “It’s one of the strangest situations in this life. Someone who remade one of my movies, who recited the poems that I wrote when I was 4 years old, is now going to evaluate what I did 40 years later.”
“But hey, she can see if there’s been any progress,” he added. “She’s in a very good position to evaluate it.”