Oscar-Shortlisted Documentary 'Advocate,' About Fearless Israeli Attorney Lea Tsemel, Premieres on PBS Tonight
Film by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche profiles controversial lawyer reknowned for defending Palestinians charged in Israeli courts
Attorney Lea Tsemel has made a career doing something very unpopular in her native Israel—defending the rights of Palestinians.
Her clients have ranged from the prominent, like Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian scholar, activist and former peace negotiator, to the lesser known, like Salah Hamouri, a Palestinian man accused of plotting to kill an Israeli religious leader in 1985.
"She's very determined... She's the kind of person who spoke truth to power before the term became trendy, and she'll continue to do so after fear makes it unfashionable," declares filmmaker Rachel Leah Jones. "She's very devoted to her work, to her cause, to her clients."
She's a model of what it means to be invested in your society, to work for a larger good.
Jones and Philippe Bellaïche directed the documentary Advocate, telling the story of Tsemel's quixotic effort to stick up for those who have dared to oppose the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The film, which was shortlisted for the Academy Awards this past year, makes its debut Monday night on the PBS series POV.
"Advocate shines a light on a character so steadfast in her conviction and systemic injustice in Israel-Palestine that she is willing to assume a most unenviable role to affect change," states POV executive producer Chris White. "For decades she has challenged the balance of power, questioning how the occupier can judge the occupied. This is a woman who stands for something and we are so proud to bring her story to American audiences on POV."
In some ways Tsemel is a quintessential Israeli, "born in 1945 in what was then Palestine before the establishment of the state. So she was three years old when Palestine became Israel, if you will," Jones tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "[She] grew up in a very regular middle-class Ashkenazi family. Father was an architect, mother was a librarian. If she was destined to greatness, she could just as well have been a chief prosecutor or a high court justice."
That she became an activist instead owes much to her experience serving in the Israeli army during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
"She saw things during the 1967 war really as the war was playing out that she couldn't really accept, that didn't line up with her understanding of right and wrong, and good and bad," Jones notes. "Once that critical process got propelled, there was no stopping her... She has said, 'I was faced with a choice after the '67 war. I had to choose my patriotism or my humanity, and I chose my humanity.' So I think that, at the end of the day, what people find treacherous is the fact that she doesn't limit her idea of human and civil rights merely to the group that she belongs to, and she sees it in universal terms."
One of her early cases, in 1972, came defending a group of Arab and Israeli Jewish militants who fought against the occupation. In the film Tsemel says the defendants were tortured by Israeli authorities.
"They all described the shackling, sleep deprivation, deafening music, interrogations day and night, and the beatings," Tsemel recounts. "It clearly was not the whim of a sole interrogator. It was systematic. There were instructions, like a user manual."
Most of the clients Tsemel has defended over the years have given confessions obtained through torture, the attorney alleges. A rare exception involved the recent case of a 13-year-old boy accused of attempted murder. Despite harsh tactics by interrogators, he did not crumble under questioning, earning the admiration of Tsemel, who took on his case.
"What captivated her almost more than anything else--and this is our interpretation--is how he withstood his interrogation," Jones observes. "Palestinian [defendants] in the Israeli system, be it the military or civilian courts, basically reach trial with a signed confession, whether it's a true or false confession. Meaning that, to a large extent, the trial has been determined in the interrogation room."
Much of the documentary focuses on Tsemel's defense of the 13-year-old, and her struggle with whether to accept a plea bargain for a reduced sentence. Even absent a confession, winning freedom for a Palestinian accused of harming an Israeli is almost certainly a losing battle.
"She really tries to fight it out each time as if she can have her day in court or they can have their day in court," Jones comments, "despite the fact that she knows better than any of the rest of us that she always loses."
For defending Palestinians accused resisting the occupation, many of Tsemel's countrymen have labeled her a traitor. Jones and Bellaïche think there's a better term for her—chutzpahdik. It's sometimes defined as being "impudent or brazen." But the filmmakers define the word this way: "That means somebody ballsy, somebody gutsy," says Jones. "Chutzpah--she has a lot of chutzpah."
It took some chutzpah for the filmmakers to direct a movie about Tsemel, who is among the most hated people in Israel. But the film was a big hit when it played in that country, and it earned top documentary awards at the DocAviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv, the Moscow Jewish Film Festival, as well as festivals in Thessaloniki, Greece and Krakow, Poland. Bellaïche and Jones were nominated as outstanding producers at the PGA Awards earlier this year and Advocate also earned Best Director and Best Feature Documentary nominations at the International Documentary Association Awards in Los Angeles last December. I spoke with the filmmakers on the red carpet there about that recognition:
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.