Advocate: A Slightly Above-Average Documentary about an Extraordinary Person

Seeing Lea Tsemel smile and joke around almost feels like a contradiction. This is a woman that has every reason to feel angry. Death threats are part of her routine. She has no illusion left as to the good of the world. She sees injustice every day. It would have been easy for her to give up on her clients and on herself. To let life follow its way.

Advocate makes clear that the thought never even crossed her mind. Every day, she gets up and keeps fighting. And no matter how hard what she witnesses is, she can still crack a joke when she comes home.

Tsemel has haters and admirers, ups and downs, successes and defeats. But no matter what happens, she always has the most important thing: hope.

Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Belaiche follow the lawyer over the course of a few months. She takes under her wing her youngest client yet, a thirteen year old boy accused of taking part in a stabbing spree. We never see any of her clients — the film blurs them out or moves on to rough animation when they come on screen. This helps remind us of the reality of what we’re seeing: the people that Tsemel defend are in true danger. Palestinians accused of extremists crimes aren’t exactly well received in the courts of Israel.

When we’re not following Tsemel in real time, her family and friends talk to the camera about her past. Advocate constructs the portrait of an extraordinary woman, one who has marked every person she has met. She’s always been loud and angry, but she’s never apologized for it, and she’s not about to start. The world isn’t giving her any reason to be softer.

This could easily have become either a fatalistic film or a dishonest portrait had Jones and Bellaiche decided to be either too dark or too upbeat. Advocate doesn’t always find its footing, but when it does, it sure works well. There is a good balance between heartwrenching moments (the recording of a brutal interrogation of a young teenager is sure to leave a mark in even the most uninformed viewers) and light hearted ones (when Michel Warschawski, Lea’s husband, recalls the first time she saw her). It’s never an easy journey, but the documentary is smart enough to keep it from being unbearable.

Yet this is very much a film for the initiated: it doesn’t linger on explanations or reminders. Tsemel is such an important figure that this lack of accessibility feels out of place. Unless a miracle happens during its theater run, this will most likely remain a hidden gem for the arthouse crowd, which would be fine if the story didn’t benefit from being told everywhere. Perhaps being more accessible would have forced Tsemel to become a figure rather than a real person. Advocate’s difficulty can be justified; but it is still a bit disappointing to point out.

As a first documentary, this is quite remarkable. As a way to communicate messages to a wide audience, it doesn’t succeed often. There are things to praise and things to change, but the drive to put Tsemel in the spotlight can only be encouraged. Hope may be the most radical form of activism these days, and watching her just proves it.

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