Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

(seen at 2019 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film at Lincoln Center/IFC Center, and Q & A at 2019 Other Israel Film Festival)

How the only Jewish lawyer defending Palestinians in Israel stays angry, optimistic – and hopeful

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche
Produced by Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones
In Hebrew, Arabic, English with English subtitles
108 minutes. Not Rated
Released by Film Movement 1/3/2020

The Advocate plunges us right into the maelstrom of controversy that is the life and work of Lea Tsemel. Since the early 1970’s, she has been the only Jewish lawyer in Israel defending Palestinians accused of terrorism. This compelling bio-documentary via cinema verité follows the legal procedures and media scrum through two particularly difficult cases, as creative animation protects client privacy. Woven between is the chronological back story of her motivations and effects through archival photographs, TV footage and appearances, as well as interviews with family and colleagues.

Tsemel is immediately teased by court house regulars jostling in the crowded elevator: “Will you ever mend your ways?” She genially punts back: “I’m a rebel with a lost cause”, and heads right to the back of the courtroom to confer with her client, her youngest one ever. In October 2015, 13-year-old Ahmad accompanied his knife-wielding older cousin as he struck several people in a Jewish neighborhood of annexed East Jerusalem, including a 13-year-old boy. His cousin was killed by police, while he was attacked by civilians, and intensively interrogated by security officers while still wounded. Media and politicians in both Israel and Palestine got the facts wrong, so Tsemel has to fight biases as well as a system that favors Israelis, including those settlers who injure Palestinian civilians, which she tries to claim as counter precedents.

Tsemel takes time to talk to client’s families, especially the female relatives whose traditional Arab garb stands out in the court halls where many guards wear the kippot of religious Zionists. While the prosecution accuses her female client of attempted suicide bombing, the family reveals she was depressed from an unhappy arranged marriage and the lawyer can sympathetically see her act was really non-political “suicide by police”.

In her offices, with Palestinian law clerks and an intern who can’t adjust to her brusque, profane style, shelves are full of case files marked by crimes: “possession of weapon – stone throwing”, “accessory to murder”, “suicide bombing”, “minors – possession of a knife”, “conspiracy to commit a crime”, “attempted murder”. She advises a family “to get into the head of an Israeli judge. What does he think when he gets on a bus?” that has had stabbings on that route? The lawyer has to warn them that the best she can do is negotiate to reduce the number of years each will serve.

Directors Israeli-American Rachel Leah Jones and her French partner Philippe Bellaiche (who was DP on two of my favorite Israeli documentaries The Flat (Ha-Dira) and The Settlers (Ha'mitnakhalim)) follow the two cases through plea, trial, verdict, and sentencing. Outside the courtrooms, director Tal Kantor’s evocative animation covers the defendants in walking images of news headlines to indicate the notoriety surrounding Tsemel’s cases. The percussive music by Robert Marcel Lepage ratchets up the tension in the hallways.

Condemning the documentary’s best picture win at Tel Aviv’s Docaviv Film Festival, Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev threatened to change the guidelines that annually awards the winner a marketing grant from the Israel Lottery Council for Culture & Arts. When I included The Advocate in a recent talk on Israeli films, an expatriate Israeli was furious about Tsemel’s career, despite my claim of defendants’ legal rights: “But why does she have to do this?”

Tsemel’s illustrated biography is full of leftist activism since college, when her brazenness (and short skirts) first attracted her husband, Michael Warschawski, and they together protested the Occupation right after the Six Day War in 1967. Years later when he was arrested for activist outreach to Palestinians, she defended him in court, with the goal to keep him tough enough to resist military interrogations: “You’re afraid that you’re not worthy of being my husband!” Their son and two daughters talk with pride mixed with hurt of dealing not only with the constant opprobrium of traitor and threats against her, but then having to be strong when their father was jailed. Frequent documentary participant PLO rep Hanan Ashrawi adds an unusually personal anecdote demonstrating how close the two women became when Tsemel defended her during Ashrawi’s student protest days.

While Tsemel stays hopeful -- “I’m a very angry optimistic woman”, other colleagues around her are discouraged by pyrrhic legal victories and constant defeat, though they turn away from the camera rather than criticize her role amidst this flattering film. The version now showing in theaters around the country since its selection onto the shortlist for Best Documentary Oscar reveals an update. Her Palestinian co-counsel took out his frustrations outside the court system and was arrested. Even as he first tried to use the plea bargain tactic he had recommended for her clients, Lea Tsemel is now his lawyer, too.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

To the Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix

Copyright © 2020