Lea Tsemel is a real, flesh-and-blood person, but if you saw someone like her in a fictional film, you might fault the screenwriter for inventing such an implausible character.
Part of that is because of who Tsemel is and what she does: she’s a Jewish Israeli attorney who has spent her career defending Palestinians accused of plotting and executing attacks on Jews. Even all of the contradictions and complexities inherent in that description, though, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this fiery, fiercely dedicated woman.
Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche’s documentary Advocate is an effort both to understand Tsemel and to document her tenacity and conviction in standing up for those who face the toughest odds in Israeli courtrooms. It’s a revealing and challenging film, both a real-life legal drama and a character study of a singular and fascinating figure in the world of social justice. Of course, given the subject matter, Jones and Bellaïche’s work is bound to be controversial, and some audiences are likely to dismiss it outright. But, much like Tsemel endeavors to do with her clients, the filmmakers’ aim is to show an underlying human side of the Israeli/Palestinian story that might otherwise be lost within the sectarian conflict.
“…she’s a Jewish Israeli attorney who has spent her career defending Palestinians…”
Advocate benefits quite a bit from a structural choice that ingeniously links Tsemel’s present and past. The majority of the film is made up of sequences that follow Tsemel and her legal team throughout their representation of one particular client: a 13-year old boy named Ahmad, accused of attempted murder for participating in a knife attack on Jewish citizens. The evidence proves that it was another teenager, killed during the incident, who did the actual stabbing; the entire attack was captured on video by eyewitnesses and security cameras. And while Ahmad confesses to authorities that he intended to scare and threaten victims, he maintains that he never planned to kill anyone – though the prosecution is determined to overlook his testimony (and the video and physical evidence that would seem to corroborate it) in order to make the attempted murder charges stick. Ahmad is thus representative of many of the defendants that Tsemel fights for, in that it’s not so much his overall guilt or innocence that’s in question, but, rather, how fairly and justly he’ll be treated in a court system that’s severely weighted against people like him.
As the film proceeds through its fly-on-the-wall documentation of the various stages of Ahmad’s court case, it periodically flashes back to historical footage and television appearances from other pivotal moments over the course of Tsemel’s legal career. What’s remarkable about the portrait that Advocate develops through this juxtaposition of then and now is just how consistent Tsemel is shown to be; the same toughness and passion that characterizes her as an older woman clearly shines through in every stage of her life. There’s a fearlessness, even brazenness, that’s shown time and time again as she steps into the fray to defend those accused of terrorism and treason – even, on one occasion, her own husband, arrested and detained for his activist activities as a director of a pro-Palestinian organization. It’s nothing short of remarkable: although Tsemel admits that she expects to lose nearly every time she enters the courtroom, her fighting spirit has only intensified over time.
“…raise awareness of the same issues of justice and representation within the complicated, often tragic world…”
As effective it is exploring Tsemel’s character and unobtrusively capturing her in her element, Advocate does suffer a bit from its one-sidedness. That’s not to say the film is a hagiography – some of the candid footage from her law office, for example, suggests that Tsemel can be a very difficult person to work for – but, still, some additional outside perspective on her work might make for a more rounded portrayal. It would be particularly interesting to hear more from the prosecutors who’ve opposed her in court, and whether they view her more with grudging respect or outright contempt (we see small glimpses of both in their limited appearances onscreen).
Still, despite that narrowness in its focus, Advocate is largely a success as a piece of filmmaking – the directorial choices, from the minimal use of music for dramatic embellishment to the innovative split-screen technique used to blur the identities of individuals in courthouse footage, are spot-on throughout. Jones and Bellaïche have undoubtedly done right by their subject, here, but there’s even more to it than that. In telling Tsemel’s story, they’ve done their part to raise awareness of the same issues of justice and representation within the complicated, often tragic world of Jewish and Arabic opposition that Tsemel has sought to expose all along. Advocate is not just a celebration but a continuation of the work she’s dedicated herself to.
Advocate (2019) Directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche. Featuring Lea Tsemel, Yasser Joubeh, Suheila Dweik, Ossama Amro, Michel Warschawski, Nissan Warschawski, Yair Koren, Talila Warschawski, Israa Jaabis, Avigdor Feldman.
8 out of 10