The subject of this timely documentary, Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel, continues to make her way into Israeli headlines – as controversial as ever. The prominent Jewish lawyer who has been representing Palestinians suspected of committing terror attacks recently had her position frozen as chair of a military tribunal committee in the Israel Bar Association’s Jerusalem District. This followed pressure by right-wing organizations and families who have lost members in terror attacks.
The film was shortlisted for an Oscar in the documentary film category and won a best picture award at Tel Aviv’s annual Docaviv film festival. Still, it is considered controversial among some right-wingers in Israel.
In the film, the cigarette-smoking, salty-tongued Tsemel openly admits that she takes on the “tough cases.” She explains: “I always see the person behind the offense,” adding that she accepts all cases that “resist the occupation.”
Many Israelis are not sympathetic to her reasoning. She’s been called “traitor,” “leftist” and “devil’s advocate.” And similar to the documentary about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the filmmakers interview Tsemel’s children, asking them what it was like growing up with a mother who may be widely attacked and even threatened on the street.
“The Advocate” walks viewers through Tsemel’s evolution coming from a Holocaust-victimized family to volunteering to help Israel during the Six Day War to defending Palestinians charged with the worst of crimes against Israelis. It is one such case, against a 13-year-old defendant, that is weaved throughout the film.
Viewers watch Tsemel initially learning about the case, speaking with the parents of the defendant, researching the case, negotiating with prosecutors, arguing with those on her legal team, taking it to trial and following it all the way to sentencing. She doesn’t always win, but the indefatigable advocate says she always starts a case with optimism and doesn’t give up. “Persistence” could be another title of this film.