Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"The very nature of Tsemel's passion for her projects makes this a compelling watch" | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche combine a biographical profile and an interrogation of the Israeli justice system to good effect in Advocate, which focuses on the life and work of Jewish Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel. Throughout the course of the film, their camera follows Tsemel as she takes on the case of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who is accused of taking part in a knife attack in Jerusalem and a woman facing suicide bomber charges, interspersing key moments of the proceedings with a look back at some of her other cases.

In addition to offering a impressively multi-faceted look at her life - which also features interviews with her family and scrutiny of the impact of her work on her, now grown up, children - Jones and Bellaiche also make good use of animation, often used in split-screen, in order to protect the identity of some of those involved.

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Her decades-long career has attracted plenty of controversy in her homeland, not least because of her view that “I’m an Israeli occupier, no matter what I do". She sees her work to defend those who many Israelis view as "terrorists" as a way of checking what she views as her privilege in this regard ("Who gave me the moral right to judge the people who resist my occupation?" she asks) - a view that often sees her cast as a sort of "devil's advocate" by the Israeli media.

The very nature of Tsemel's passion for her projects makes this a compelling watch, as she doggedly pursues each case - including defending her husband and her work to outlaw torture as an interrogation technique - even though she is of the opinion that "we always lose". Words like indefatigable could have been invented for her, such is her determination to pursue what she believes to be justice but the directors don't shy away from showing she can also be difficult to work with because of her single-mindedness.

Jones and Bellaiche aren't in the specific business of putting Israeli justice in the dock but scrutiny of the system is a natural byproduct of following Tsemel. The media language used around the cases is particularly shocking, with reporters apparently seeing no need to couch their coverage with words such as 'claim' or 'allegation', preferring instead to assume guilt unless innocence is proved. The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu verbally weighs-in on one case might also be seen as, at the very least, unhelpful in terms of securing a fair trial.

What makes Tsemel so magnetic is her combination of toughness and humanity. She might be driving on, but its clear to see that she struggles with the moral ambiguities of suggesting a client goes to court over taking a plea bargain and her upset at losing a case is also obvious and deeply felt. To her it isn't the fact that she lost - although doubtless that also cuts - but the fact that when she does, she feels justice has not been served.

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.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2019
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Biographical documentary about Lea Tsemel who defends Palestinians: from feminists to fundamentalists, from non-violent demonstrators to armed militants.

Director: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche

Year: 2019

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Israel, Canada, Switzerland

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If you like this, try:

The Judge
So Help Me God