Review: ‘Advocate,’ starring Lea Tsemel

January 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lea Tsemel in "Advocate"
Lea Tsemel in “Advocate” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“Advocate”

Directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Phillipe Bellaïche

Hebrew with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Israel, this documentary has mostly Israeli Jews with a significant representation of Palestinian Muslims.

Culture Clash: This entire movie is about how the longtime and ongoing conflicts between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims affect the criminal-justice system in Israel.

Culture Audience: “Advocate” will appeal primarily to those who like arthouse international documentaries that cover civil rights, legal issues and criminal justice from a left-wing/liberal point of view.

Lea Tsemel in “Advocate” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

Controversial attorney Lea Tsemel has gotten used to being called a traitor and a “devil’s advocate” in her native Israel, because her specialty is representing Palestinian Muslim minorities in Israel who are usually accused of violent acts of terrorism or hate crimes. Tsemel says her clients are frequently targeted for unfair criminal prosecutions and are given harsher sentences than non-Muslims. A self-described left-wing activist, Tsemel is Jewish (most of her family members on her mother’s side were murdered in the Holocaust), but she’s not overtly religious. Her true religion is taking up causes for people she considers misunderstood underdogs and fighting a criminal-justice system that she says is biased against them.

Tsemel says she is not anti-Israel, but she will usually side with those she sees as being persecuted and deprived of their civil rights. Instead of cowering from the onslaught of hateful criticism that she gets from much of the Israeli public, she uses it has a badge of honor that she’s doing something right in shaking up a system that she wants to hold accountable for civil-rights violations. “Advocate” directors Rachel Leah Jones and Phillipe Bellaïche have made a compelling portrait of Tsemel by alternating between up-close access to her present-day life and archival footage that shows glimpses of her past.

Born in 1945, Tsemel is at an age when most people have settled into retirement. However, she shows no signs of slowing down. Her reputation of being a tough defense lawyer is one she’s had since she began practicing law in the 1970s, but her iconoclastic activism started long before she became an attorney. In the movie, she recalls her days as a volunteer soldier in 1967, and she claims she was one of the first Israeli women to visit the Wailing Wall. She had interactions with Arabs from an early age, since she grew up in an Arab-owned house in her hometown of Haifa, Israel.

As a student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she frequently participated in activism rallies and protests organized by the radical Israeli group Marzpen. It was at one of these Marzpen protests that she was first seen by fellow Hebrew University student Michel Warschawski, who would later become her husband and a fellow left-wing activist. Warschawski, who is interviewed in the documentary, says he was intrigued not only by her physical appearance but also her fearless attitude. He vividly describes the first time he saw her at the protest as being a short, attractive, miniskirt-wearing woman who had a big voice and wasn’t shy about using crude language to make her point. When  a disapproving man watching the protest told her she should be worried about finding a husband, she shouted him down by essentially telling him that he should be worried about his small penis size.

Even though Tsemel and Warshcawski have kids together, they freely admit that her obsessive devotion to her work has made her family her secondary priority. Their son Nissan (nicknamed “Nini”) and daughter Talila are interviewed in the documentary, and they offer their perspectives of growing up with a mother who is a controversial public figure. Nini remembers a rare occasion from his childhood when he and his mother were spending leisure time together by talking a walk outside. They were stopped by a stranger, who showed them he had a gun and told Tsemel that people were watching her. Nini remembers being very frightened by the incident and asking his mother why she wanted to do this work if it was so dangerous. She replied that she can’t do anything else besides her work. Even though death threats are part of her mother’s work, Talila says that because of her mother’s gritty courage in dealing with her enemies, she and her family feel protected.

From the very first scene of “Advocate,” viewers see Tsemel’s dominant, “take charge” personality when, during a meeting with a client who’s accused of stabbing 11 people on a bus, she tells him about how she wants things to go for an upcoming court appearance: “I’ll do the talking.” The client was charged with 11 counts of attempted murder, but Tsemel got the charges reduced to one count of attempted murder. In Tsemel’s line of work, that reduction of charges is a major victory. Viewers don’t find out the final outcome of the case because the documentary then shifts to the case that is the primary focus of the film, making “Advocate” not just a biography of Tsemel but also a tense legal drama.

Tsemel is the defense attorney for a boy named Ahmad, who is in his mid-teens and charged with two counts of attempted murder. Several facts of the case are disputed by the prosecution and the defense, but both sides agree that Ahmad and his older teenage cousin Hassan were going around Jerusalem’s Pisgat Zeev neighborhood, openly carrying knives (some of this activity was caught on surveillance video), and two Jewish people (a man and a boy) got stabbed. The stabbings were not caught on video. In the resulting melee, Ahmad ran out on a street and was hit by a car, while Hassan was shot and killed by police. Ahmad had head and arm injuries as a result of the car accident, but they weren’t life-threatening injuries, and he was arrested. His defense was that Hassan did the stabbing, and that their intent was to scare people with the knives, not kill them.

There are certain people (such as Ahmad) in the documentary whose identities are protected. The documentary doesn’t reveal their last names, and their faces are superimposed with animation, which is shown in split screen with unaltered images in the same scene. Many of Ahmad’s adult relatives, including his mother and father, are shown on camera. Cameras and other recording equipment are not allowed in the courtroom, although cameras and other recording equipment are allowed in the courthouse hallways, which is where the documentary gets the majority of the courthouse footage.

In this high-profile case against Ahmad, the prosecution portrays Ahmad as a terrorist who committed a hate crime. The defense’s argument is that there is no proof that Ahmad actually did the stabbing, the crime committed was not a terrorist act or hate crime, and the attempted murder charges should be dropped. At the heart of the case is the issue of intent: Was the intent murder or something else? Tsemel and her younger co-counsel Tareq Barghout are faced with the decision to do a plea-bargain deal or take the case to trial. Revealing their decision and the outcome of the case would be spoiler information, but it’s enough to say that Tsemel, by her own admission, is the kind of person who doesn’t just back down from a fight, she runs toward it and sometimes instigates it. The decision on whether or not to take the case to trial is divisive among members of her own legal team, who express their differing opinions on what to do.

Barghout is cocky with a sarcastic edge to his humor, but his bark turns out to be worse than his bite. Although Tsemel is clearly his mentor, Barghout doesn’t have the nerves of steel that she does. In one scene in the documentary, Tsemel and Barghout have to face the media in the courthouse hallway after getting a judge’s decision that’s a setback in Ahmad’s case. Tsemel barrels ahead to face the cameras and answer questions from reporters during the impromptu press conference, while Barghout decides he can’t deal with the media at that moment, so he ducks out and leaves through a back staircase. He eventually returns, somewhat sheepishly, when the press conference is nearly over, but his actions show how conflicted he feels about the public scrutiny of being Tsemel’s right-hand man. A major development involving Barghout has happened since “Advocate” had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. This development won’t be a spoiler reveal in this movie review, but the documentary mentions this development in an updated postscript before the movie’s end credits.

“Advocate” makes it clear that although Tsemel can be compassionate with her clients, that compassion doesn’t always extend to her employees. In one scene in the film, Barghout and Tsemel joke about an intern in their office who abruptly quit because the intern didn’t like how Tsemel yelled at the intern and told him to “eat shit” (metaphorically) after the intern resisted doing a requested office task. Barghout comments that Tsemel has said things worse things to Barghout and other people who work for her, so they have to find an intern who can handle Tsemel’s cursing and abrasive manner.

One of the biggest legal issues that really gets Tsemel riled up is how authority figures use unethical interrogation techniques, which can lead to false confessions. She thinks that torture and illegal interrogation methods are much more common than what’s reported, and she believes almost all of her clients have been victims of this abuse of power. The documentary includes released footage clips of Ahmad being interrogated by police shortly after being hit by a car. The footage shows Ahmad wailing to an irate, screaming police officer that he doesn’t remember what happened and he wants to be taken to a doctor. It’s footage that may be difficult for some viewers to watch, but it’s essential to understand why people have different opinions on how suspects should be treated during interrogations.

The interrogation issue is also a personal matter for Tsemel, because her husband Warschawski was brutally interrogated after being arrested in 1987 for running the Alternative Information Center, a radical political resource base that served anyone who wanted it, but the center was perceived by the Israeli government as being a haven for anti-Israeli/anti-Semitic Muslims. In an interview for the documentary, Warschawski remembers the abusive interrogations that he endured while in jail. When he contacted Tsemel and begged her to get him out of jail, she refused, and told him that she wasn’t worthy of being her husband if he couldn’t toughen up. (And she reminded her husband that the main interrogator was stuck in  the same job for years, which meant that he wasn’t considered good enough to be promoted, so he shouldn’t be feared.)

Tsemel is obviously a charismatic force who’s interesting enough to have an entire documentary made about her. However, viewers should know going into this movie that the filmmakers (who’ve known Tsemel since the 1990s) are clearly fans of her, because they present very little viewpoints from the opposing side, other than clips of media footage showing Tsemel in verbal spats with opponents on talk shows, or courthouse footage of a prosecutor making remarks during a hallway press conference. The movie’s main flaw is it shows no attempt to interview people on the victims’ side. Regardless of what people think should happen to Tsemel’s clients, there are people who’ve gotten killed or hurt as a result of violent actions, and the survivors’ perspectives are shut of out this film.

The talking heads in the movie include Palestinian feminist political activist Hanan Ashrawi, who talks about how normal it is for Palestinian families in Israel to have a family member who’s been a political prisoner. Also interviewed is Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli human/civil rights lawyer, who says that even though Israel passed tougher laws that restrict torture techniques in interrogations, the laws are ignored by Israel’s Secret Service. Although these intellectual viewpoints offer much-needed perspectives from people who aren’t clients, employees or family members of Tsemel, these talking heads obviously have similar left-wing mindsets.

As a biography that portrays Tsemel as a flawed but admirable anti-establishment hero, this documentary succeeds on all counts. As a balanced look at Israeli’s legal system, this documentary fails to tell a well-rounded story that can be considered true investigative journalism. But on a purely human level, “Advocate” is best enjoyed if you like to root for people who go against the system to take on unpopular causes at the risk of their own safety and comfort.

Film Movement released “Advocate” in select U.S. cinemas on January 3, 2020.