Of all the complicated geopolitical flashpoints, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably still the most ideologically entrenched, the most bitterly divided, the prickliest to discuss with any degree of nuance or decorum. It is in this environment, in which one person’s defense of an accused Palestinian “freedom fighter” is another person’s unconscionable representation of a “terrorist,” where Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s gutsy documentary Advocate resides.
In profiling — and, yes, implicitly siding with — Israel’s most prominent legal voice for the rights of Palestinian political prisoners, the directors ride a third rail through dangerous terrain. In Israel, screenings of Advocate have been canceled or moved because of vociferous protests from the country’s robust and organized right wing; filmmakers (though not Jones and Bellaiche) supporting the movie have been spat upon.
Even in the States, where the reception has been overwhelmingly positive, Advocate still has the capacity to shock, simply by presenting a Palestinian perspective rarely broached in American media. The directors’ choice of a split-screen of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas offering clashing perspectives on the controversial arrest of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who threatened Jews with a knife is, in itself, a bold equivalence. We’re so used to hearing only the Israeli side, which is to say the Likud side, that genuine balance is bound to be criticized by many as giving terrorism a bullhorn.
That teenage boy’s case is the narrative thrust of Advocate, and it’s a microcosm for the type of challenge that its protagonist, defense lawyer Leah Tsemel, adopts with gusto and decades of case law. A tenacious and telegenic figure, Tsemel has been a force of nature in the Israeli left for her entire adult life. As explored in elegantly woven flashbacks, we see her radicalization during the time of the Six-Day War, on through her defense of fellow Palestine-supporting Israelis for treason in the 1970s, and of Palestinians’ attacks on a major Israeli settlement in the 1980s.
Tsemel’s sympathy for Israel’s entrenched Arab minority has made her, to some, a celebrated warrior, and to others a pariah, but she has maintained a rapier wit. In one well-chosen clip, from a 1999 interview on Israeli television, she informs the host that “I left my devil’s tail at home this time.”
She is a lead character that any filmmaker, fiction or otherwise, would relish. In the older clips, she smokes cigarettes like a pulp gumshoe does — like a man does — and to this day deploys colorful language when the moment calls for it. She offers to arm-wrestle those who her challenge her judgment. We see her acting brusquely with her partners and interns, and unsentimentally with her potential clients. She is any dramatist’s conception of a loudmouth lawyer.
She’s also a self-described “losing lawyer” — a description she offers in tart English — with a track record of dismal failures. Though the directors pace their movie like a great legal thriller, holding us in suspense about the 13-year-old boy’s future, the viewer needn’t read tea leaves to guess the outcome. The filmmakers depict Tsemel as David fighting the Goliath of the Israeli legal system, where the deck is perennially stacked against Palestinians. That’s the tragic irony of Advocate: that a figure so despised by so many in her own country has had such a paucity of victories.
Jones and Bellaiche interview Avigdor Feldman, one of Tsemel’s colleagues, whose pessimism of the Israeli courts is pervasive: “I don’t believe in justice.” One wouldn’t blame Tsemel for following his lead. In the most moving portions of Advocate, we see her question her legal strategies, explore her doubts, endure setbacks and move the goalposts for her clients with each piece of bad news that lands on her desk with a discouraging thud.
But she is anything but a quitter. Toward the end, she describes herself, in what could easily have been the film’s title, as “a very angry optimistic woman” — a contradictory statement for a contradictory region.
ADVOCATE. Directors: Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche; Distributor: Film Movement; Not Rated; in Hebrew, Arabic and English; now playing at Lake Worth Playhouse’s Stonzek Theater