For 50 years, Lea Tsemel has almost exclusively defended Palestinians within the Israeli court system, with her clients including everything from activists to petty criminals to would-be suicide bombers. Profiling Tsemel, Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s documentary Advocate, now in theaters after making the festival rounds last year, examines both the events that have shaped her political convictions and the constant challenges she faces acting on those convictions.
At the heart of both the film and Tsemel’s fight is the seemingly intractable contradiction not just in Israeli law but in its very society. How does the basic concept of “justice” even hold water in an apartheid state, one in which the colonized are expected to play by the rules of the colonizers? Tsemel, born to Holocaust escapees who believed in the salvation offered by Zionism, describes becoming cognizant of this discrepancy in college, as her elation over the Six-Day War gave way to recognition of the commonalities between her parents and those made refugees by her country’s actions. We see Palestinians accused of even the least destructive crimes immediately branded as “terrorists,” with throngs of Jewish Israelis baying for their blood.
Jones and Bellaiche, though mainly sticking to conventional documentary construction, throw in an interesting formal tic to visually convey the fission between how Tsemel’s clients act and their portrayal in the media and culture. Occasionally the screen will split, with half in live action and the other half in crude animation rotoscoped over the image, with the figures shaped around snippets from various news articles and headlines. It is a low-key but damning condemnation of how Palestinians are dehumanized. The same thing happens to Tsemel, who describes with wry apathy the various death threats and curses she’s received over the decades from people who believe she has crawled into bed with the Devil. That dehumanization is acutely felt in the case Tsemel has taken on while the cameras follow her for this film: that of a 13-year-old boy who was interrogated by police with a crack in his skull.
Mainstream media is usually loath to grant Palestinians even the slightest sympathy, so it’s surprising that Advocate has been shortlisted for the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Whether it actually gets nominated remains to be seen (the nominations will be announced January 13), but even this honor is notable. Maybe there’s a perceptual shift at play, or maybe the film is simply good enough to break past that bias. It certainly rises above the usual standard of both biographical and political docs.
Advocate is now playing in select theaters.