(Canada/Israel/Switzerland, 105 min.)
Dir. Rachel Leah Jones, Phillipe Bellaiche
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
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. Known by opponents as “the devil’s advocate” or traitor to her country, her defence of would-be suicide bombers and other violent offenders may also be hard to swallow for pro-Palestinian pacifists.
Much of the film follows the progress of two inflammatory court cases in 2015-2016. One involves the youngest defendant Tsemel had ever had: a 13-year-old Palestinian boy charged, along with his 15-year-old cousin, with the attempted murder of two Israelis in a knife attack in one of the illegal settlements. In video footage, widely seen throughout Israel, the older boy was shot dead by security forces while the younger was run over by a car before his arrest. The other case was of a 31-year-old woman, left badly burned by a car explosion, in what the court determined was a failed suicide bombing.
During the film’s somewhat diffuse middle-section, the film serves as a talking heads plus archival clip biography of Tsemel, who was a law student during the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, in which she served as an enthusiastic volunteer. But the sight of refugees fleeing the Israeli forces evoked family stories of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and cemented her life-long opposition to the occupation and her challenges to the military justice applied to the Palestinian population.
Michel Warchawski, Tsemel’s pro-Palestinian activist husband, offers a wryly amusing account of his wife’s ferocity. During a period when he was jailed for abetting Palestinian extremists and complained about the intense interrogations, she told him he needed to man up or he wasn’t worthy to be her husband. (Her adult son and daughter speak of her with a tone something between embarrassment and awe). We see how her legal history includes many losses and a few incremental wins, including her part in securing a 1999 Israel Supreme Court ruling which limited the use of torture in interrogations.
Rousing, though not flawless, Advocate offers scant input from Tsemel’s critics, and treats her as a unique crusading figure, without addressing the work of high-profile Israeli human-rights lawyers such as Michael Sfard and the late Felicia Langer, with whom Tsemel served as an apprentice. Though largely conventional in presentation, the film’s use of split-screen rotoscope animation to disguise certain characters, is a bit of a misfire, more irritating than artful. An onscreen text explains that the technique is used to disguise some characters for their safety and dignity. In the case of the defendants in both trials, their images are widely available online.
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