Advocate, directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche, is a documentary look at the human rights lawyer, Leah Tsemel, who has been defending Palestinians since she became a lawyer back in the 1960s. She defends armed activists and non-violent activists, men and women, children and adults.
When asked why she defends terrorists, Tsemel explains that it is not clear to her that they are terrorists. She sees them rather as freedom fighters. In fact, it’s not a question of whether you condone the actions of the people that she defends, but rather if you can understand what motivates them, especially as they live under the strict regime of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the morass of the legal system of the Civil Administration.
In this film, we meet Tsemel’s husband and grown children, talking about her work. Tsemel admits that she has only won one case in all of her years of practicing law – the landmark case that she brought to the Supreme Court against the use of torture in the interrogation of suspects. This was a big success for her and also for Israeli democracy.
In another case, she defends a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who, together with his 15-year-old cousin, went wielding knives to a Jewish neighborhood. The cousin was killed on the spot. The 13-year-old, a child who hadn’t hurt anyone and who clearly stated in his interrogation that he only intended to frighten, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for what he had done. The shocking part is that we all know that if Jewish hooligans, even adults, were caught running around an Arab village with lethal weapons, they would be sent home with a reprimand. This imbalance in the way Arabs and Jews are treated in the occupied territories and in the Israeli judicial system is quite shocking.
In another scene, Tsemel is seen with her friend of many years Hanan Ashrawi. They are both young mothers. Hanan tells the camera, and the viewer who can bear to hear this, that imprisonment of family members is the plight of every Palestinian family. This is perhaps the strongest line in the film.
The film Advocate is an extremely cogent and powerful documentary story of a human rights lawyer who is fighting for justice for all of us. The film is 108 minutes.