Dir.: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche; Documentary with Lea Tsemel; Canada, Switzerland, Israel 2019, 110 min.
Advocate explores the work of Israeli defence lawyer Lea Tsemel, who defends Palestinians – suicide bombers as well as innocent clients – earning her the name “Devil’s Advocate” in her home country where the Law often stands alone in the ongoing war between Israel and Palestinians.
Born in 1945 in Haifa, Tsemel volunteered for the 1967 Six Day War and was one of the first Israeli women to visit the Western Wall. Somehow the conflict politicised her – she could not believe in the Government slogan ”War for Peace”. After studying law, she served as an apprentice to Human Right’s Lawyer Felicia Langer.
One of Tsemel’s first trials was the defence of Ahmed, a 13 year-old Palestinian boy in 1972. Ahmed and his cousin Hassan were captured with knives and accused of an attempted suicide bombing, even though video evidence was to the contrary. Under Israeli Law, nobody under the age of fourteen can be prosecuted for a crime. But a sensationalist media called for the death penalty for Ahmed. As it is often the case when innocent Palestinians are involved, the Israeli prosecution went for a plea bargaining, and reached a guilty verdict in spite of the lack of evidence.
Tsemel’s next got her teeth into the case of Israa Jabis, a young Palestinian mother who was also accused of an attempted suicide bombing after her propane gas tank in the back of her car exploded. Although Israa was the only one injured, the case made legal history, making it illegal to use evidence from admissions gained under torture and duress at court.
The directors use “Fly-on-the wall” techniques to show Tsemel working on two concurrent cases, one professional, the other personal – and it soon becomes clear that she is not an easy person to work for. The directors made fluent use of historical footage and TV appearances of Tsemel, juxtaposing them with the here and now. But the application of Rotoscope and split-screens (to hide the identities of many involved), as well as the sparse use of music by Marcel Lepage, create a very unsettling atmosphere. Tsemel’s husband, Michel Warschawsky, a director of a Palestinian project, also becomes one of her clients after being arrested for his activities. Interviews with him and the couple’s son and daughter are illuminating. But Advocate would have been more convincing as a document had the filmmakers questioned Tsemel more insistently about her motives to defend violent perpetrators. Calling herself a “very angry, optimistic woman” and a “losing lawyer” she has the last word with her life’s motto “All I want is Palestinians to find justice in Israeli courts”. Tsemel has gone on to win international Law awards in France and Germany, Tsemel’s is not as powerful in her homeland and is possibly should be. Advocate is certainly proof that truth is often the first victim during wartime. AS
WINNER BEST DOCUMETNARY | UK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 2019
KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | WINNER DOCUMENTARY AWARD.