'Advocate': Film Review | Hot Docs 2019

Advocate-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Film

This documentary portrait of Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel gets absorbingly up close and personal.

When we first see Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel in Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche's compelling documentary Advocate (which world-premiered at Sundance and recently played the Canadian International nonfiction festival Hot Docs), she's in motion, striding through the hallways of a Jerusalem court. The frame is bisected, live-action footage on the left, rotoscoped animated imagery on the right. This stylistic tic, which recurs now and again, is Jones and Bellaïche's way of protecting the identities of Tsemel's clients, almost all of whom are Palestinians accused of extremist crimes.

This has been Tsemel's life for decades, working on behalf of people viewed by many in her orbit as inferiors and fanatics. Advocate, though, isn't interested in litigating the apparently limitless divisions between Israel and Palestine so much as it is in portraying Tsemel's tireless routine, in the process demonstrating how one person lives morally and ethically within a morass.

There are flashbacks to Tsemel's past, detailing her budding student activism, her fraught attempts to raise her family with her husband (the anti-Zionist demonstrator Michel Warschawski), and her fervent efforts leading to a landmark 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that outlawed the use of torture when interrogating detainees. Much of Advocate, however, is concerned with two cases currently on Tsemel's docket: a Palestinian woman accused of plotting a suicide bombing, and a Palestinian teenager (a boy of merely 13) who accompanied his older brother on a stabbing spree. The boy's crime is especially high-profile given the blustery verbal shellacking he received at a news conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Jones and Bellaïche would seem to be at a disadvantage because their cameras were not allowed in the courtrooms for these trials. But the denial of what, in most movies, would be the dramatic crux works to the film's advantage. We mainly watch Tsemel and her clients as they either ready for or react to their days in court. Tsemel seems fully aware of the likeliest outcome, and she frequently assumes a position of preemptive consoler, though in the most steely of ways. (She knows very well how to play to both her clients and the camera.) Not that any of this prevents the defendants or their families from acting out when verdicts don't go their way, as in the case of one of the accused suicide bomber's relatives, who rails, very upsettingly, outside the gates of the courthouse as if cursing the gods.

Watching these two trials through to their end lends additional credence to Tsemel's perspective that the Israeli legal system is rigged against Palestinians from the get-go, regardless of their guilt or innocence. How can justice prevail when autocratic impulses so consistently pervert democratic ideals? At one point, Tsemel describes herself as a member of an occupying force and defines her mission in life as to somehow rectify the resultant power imbalance. The only way to get there, as the film's pointed final image suggests, is to keep on trudging.

Venue: Hot Docs Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Directors: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche
Producers: Joëlle Bertossa, Paul Cadieux
Editor: Yael Bitton

105 minutes