Lea Tsemel defends Palestinians: from feminists to fundamentalists, from non-violent demonstrators to armed militants. As a Jewish-Israeli lawyer who has represented political prisoners for five decades, Tsemel, in her tireless quest for justice, pushes the praxis of a human rights defender to its limits.
As far as most Israelis are concerned, she defends the indefensible. As far as Palestinians are concerned, she's more than an attorney, she’s an advocate.
ADVOCATE follows Tsemel’s caseload in real-time, including the high-profile trial of a 13-year-old boy — her youngest client to date — while also revisiting her landmark cases and reflecting on the political and professional significance of her work as well as the personal price one pays for assuming the role of “devil’s advocate.”
When they aren't busy chasing Tsemel through the courthouse halls, directing duo Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche assume the privileged position of a fly on the wall in Tsemel’s office, where a year of documenting is like gathering a lifetime of evidence. This evidence attests to the wrongs of occupation but also to the faults of those who try to resist it, the failings of those who try to defend them, and the fundamental flaws of a legal system that purports to serve justice but in fact serves the powers that be.
Tsemel spoke truth to power before the term became trendy and she’ll continue to do so after fear makes it unfashionable. As such, she’s a model we’re hard-pressed to preserve in Israel/Palestine, and elsewhere.
On the one hand, she’s the boy calling the Emperor naked, i.e. exposing the underbelly of Israeli security jurisprudence: the occupier is judging the occupied. On the other hand, she’s the boy with his finger in the dam, doing her utmost to uphold the rule-of-law before the flood of injustice drowns us all.
"I would highly recommend it to any academic library that supports programs looking at human rights, the Israel-Arab War, law, and politics." - EMRO
- "Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s riveting new documentary pays tribute to the tenacity and selflessness of Jewish Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel, a bitterly divisive figure in her home country on account of her unwavering dedication to Palestinian rights, and her willingness to defend anyone who uses violence to resist the Israeli occupation. [It is] a deeply bittersweet portrait of a magnetic individual."
- "One of a recent trend of films that focus on female advocacy in adverse circumstances, including The Judge, RBG and So Help Me God, whatever you think of her personal politics, by the end of the film you're likely to feel the world needs more like Tsemel, while also realising what a big ask that is."
- "This documentary portrait of Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel gets absorbingly up close and personal. Compelling."
- "The film is not militant but it is infuriating. It is also inspirational and full of heart. It ends in hope that, as long as there are people still living with compassion, there is still a chance for resolution, even if that resolution is – for now – nowhere in sight. It captures the humanity and pain that lays behind agression and labels, building an insightful picture of a flawed judicial system. One that brings no justice and more pain for those living in what seems a hopeless conflict in a part of the world we choose to see as very far away."
- "A heroic portrait of an Israeli lawyer who defends violent Palestinian offenders, Advocate is a lively exercise in documentary advocacy. The subject is Lea Tsemel, a 74-year-old political firebrand, who has dedicated her career to challenging Israel’s two-tier justice system, with different standards for Israeli citizens and Palestinians in the occupied territories. This self-described “angry and optimistic woman,” is a natural cinema verité performer, full of flashing energy, quick sardonic retorts and unselfconscious in her moral convictions. "
- "In this impressive documentary, Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche masterfully juxtapose two of Tsemel’s cases, one professional and the other personal: the defense of a minor accused of attempted murder and a past case in which she defended her activist husband from an accusation of treason against the state. Delicately animated sequences conceal defendants’ identities as Tsemel frankly addresses their best possible chances for acquittal, while interviews with Tsemel’s adult children reveal her unique ability to see the humanity of those accused. ADVOCATE is an original, provocative film that both exposes the human fallout of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and provides hope for a peaceful resolution."
- "...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."
- "Engrossing.... Provocative...makes for potent viewing as a portrait of a steadfast activist with a controversial cause."
- "...intimate, powerful...."
- "This imposing documentary is remarkable for providing us with another point of view and a spotlight on human rights to this part of the world. The ongoing works of the courageous and passionate Lea Tsemel are inspired. She gives a voice to those who do not have one. "
- "“Advocate,” is a tensely intelligent portrait of an Israeli woman who has devoted her life and career to defending the most unpopular and disadvantaged legal clients in Israel, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who have chosen to push back against the 52-year-long occupation, often violently. "
- "A stunning film that is highly recommended."
- "As a biography that portrays Tsemel as a flawed but admirable anti-establishment hero, this documentary succeeds on all counts. "
- "Advocate expresses a truly universal truth for progressive movements: While active struggle requires significant sacrifice and even personal danger, it is in service of a greater, kinder future for all people, both intimate and unknown."
- "As both a portrait of an exceptional character and something of a legal procedural, “Advocate” is a fascinating watch. "
Awards & Recognition
Best Israeli Film
DocAviv Film Festival
GoE Bridging the Borders Award
Palm Springs Int'l. Film Festival
Hong Kong Int'l. Film Festival
Krakow Film Festival
Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival
Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival
IDA Documentary Awards
IDA Documentary Awards
Grand Jury Prize
Sundance Film Festival
Outstanding Producer of Documentary Motion Pictures
Cinema Eye Awards
Politiken's Audience Award
European Film Awards
Israel Documentary Forum Awards
Best Feature Doc
Asia Pacific Screen Awards
Best of Fests
Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Social Impact Media Awards