ADVOCATE movie review – Lea Tsemel is not your ordinary Israeli lawyer, for fifty years she has been defending Palestinian prisoners, not only those who may have demonstrated peacefully but also those who have taken a violent path. “The Israelis have no right to tell the Palestinians how to pursue their fight against occupation of their land” she says in one of the scenes of the documentary directed by Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones, who also wrote the script.
The film takes the spectator through two of her most recent cases, one of a 13-year-old Palestinian who attacked some Jews on a Jerusalem street, the other, a woman accused of trying to blow herself up with a bomb at the Israeli border, which in the end didn’t work. The present-day legal drama is interposed with interesting and very pertinent archival footage of this very special woman: her youth years, references to family members killed during the Holocaust, her army service, her student activism and her husband, also an activist. Above all, her strong belief –shared at the time by other fellow young Israelis– that peace with the Palestinians was possible and that for this to be achieved, Israeli occupation of Palestinian land should end. Certainly a controversial view then, and even more so now when right-wing nationalism seems so engrained in Israeli society.
“Advocate” in a deeper sense, is not only a testimony of this Jewish woman defending Palestinians who are usually presented as cold-blooded “terrorists” but it is also a chronicle of someone fighting for justice against all odds. Of course, to defend people who have indeed committed acts of violence resulting in the death or harm of innocent people, simply because it happens that they are Jewish is a daring and even perhaps provocative task. Lea Tsemel, because of that, has been termed a traitor, and on more than one occasion physically threatened. But that hasn’t deter her. She admits that in most cases she is “the loser lawyer” and, in fact, only on a few occasions she may have enjoyed some small victories, such as the time when the Israeli Supreme Court determined that the secret services could not torture prisoners and statements obtained through such methods could not be admissible in court.
This is a film that invites to heated discussions, of course, in any democratic society even those offenders accused of the worst crimes have the right to a defense, but what certainly is more controversial in Lea’s case is the fact that she usually bases her cases on the political issue at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that there is a situation of territorial occupation and as long as this situation continues, those who have been displaced would continue their fight against whoever they may perceive as the “enemy,” even if on most occasions perhaps, they are just ordinary civilians.
The documentary is in Hebrew with French subtitles (“Avocate”) at the Cinemathèque Québécoise (a release with English subtitles is to be announced). Recommendable to those interested in the political situation in the Middle East, human rights, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even the philosophical question about the meaning of justice. Running time: 110 min.
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