Filmmaker Nadav Lapid has a long history of criticising the Israeli state; his comments about The Kashmir Files at the closing ceremony of this year’s International Film Festival of India (IFFI) shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Lapid, who was serving as the head of the jury at the 53rd edition of the prestigious festival, said in his closing remarks that The Kashmir Files is a ‘vulgar’ piece of propaganda filmmaking.
He said this before a crowd filled with dignitaries and prominent members of the film community. Lapid’s statement was criticised by Israel’s Ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, who accused the filmmaker of having inflicted damage on India-Israel ties.
Born in 1975, Lapid’s films often depict the harsh realities of life in an increasingly autocratic modern-day Israel. His debut feature Policeman won the Locarno Festival Special Jury Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2011. His 2019 film Synonyms, about a young man who disowns his own country in disgust, won the Golden Bear award at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival. His latest film, Ahed’s Knee shared the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize with Memoria by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and was selected to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or.
Ahed’s Knee is perhaps his most autobiographical film yet. It follows a director who travels to a remote village in Israel to screen his latest film. There, he is greeted by a young officer for the Ministry of Culture, who is there to make sure that the filmmaker toes the line. The film is based on a similar experience that Lapid had in 2014. And certainly, toeing the line was what he was expected to do at IFFI as well.
In an interview with MUBI Notebook, he said, “When I was doing Ahed’s Knee I think I was so… [pauses]. I felt as though everything was over, and doomed. I felt like I had no drop of ambivalence about nothing, and to me that ‘nothing’ always goes back to Israel. And the moment Synonyms came out, there were people who’d say, ‘wow, that’s such a strong criticism of Israel, but it’s clear that the main character, the Israeli guy, is still so charming—so it’s full of love!’”
He elaborated on his relationship with his home nation and its people in an interview with Deadline. He said, “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.” About his compatriots, Lapid added, “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.”
In the same interview, he declared, “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.”
Directed by Vivek Agnihotri, The Kashmir Files is based on the mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley in the ’90s. The film generated significant controversy upon release, and went on to make nearly Rs 350 crore at the global box office. In his original statement at the IFFI closing ceremony, Lapid had said, “Usually, I don’t read from paper. This time, I want to be precise. I want to thank the director and head of the programming of the festival for its cinematic richness, the diversity and complexity…There were 15 films in the international competition — the front window of the festival. Fourteen out of them had the cinematic qualities…and evoked vivid discussions. We were, all of us, disturbed and shocked by the 15th film, ‘The Kashmir Files’. That felt to us like a propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival.”
Ahed’s Knee can be streamed on Mubi, in case you’re interested. The Kashmir Files is streaming on ZEE5.