Since the early 1970s, Jewish-Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel has made a career out of defending Palestinians in Israeli courts: from feminists to fundamentalists, from non-violent demonstrators to armed militants, including suicide bombers. In ADVOCATE, filmmakers Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones deconstruct this controversial figure who will defend anyone who opposes what she describes as an illegal occupation of Palestine. Tsemel is by her own words "non-discriminating" about who she represents: her goal is fair representation within a court system that she believes is rigged against Palestinian prisoners, and she reserves judgment even of those guilty of terrible crimes. But her perspective goes beyond criminal justice — as the film outlines, Tsemel has been committed to left-wing advocacy all her life. Tsemel insists that Israeli law is fundamentally flawed when it comes to Palestinian criminals, on the basis that an occupier has no right to tell the occupied how they should resist. ADVOCATE follows Tsemel as she takes on two new cases, and illustrates her decades-long clash with the Israeli establishment.
"To many, Tsemel is a hero, a fearless and tireless warrior for justice. To others, she is 'the devil’s advocate.' To everyone who knows or has heard of her, regardless of their political views, she is larger than life" [Jadaliyya]. As a Jewish-Israeli woman who has represented political prisoners for nearly 50 years on behalf of the far-left — but within the confines of a culture moving ever to the right — Tsemel pushes the definition of a human rights defender to its limits.
- "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."
- "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. "
Awards & Recognition
Best Israeli Film
DocAviv Film Festival
Hong Kong Int'l. Film Festival
Krakow Film Festival
Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival
Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival
Grand Jury Prize
Sundance Film Festival
Politiken's Audience Award
European Film Awards
Best of Fests
Human Rights Watch Film Festival