“I am a very angry, optimistic woman,” says Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel toward the end of “Advocate,” a sober, engrossing documentary dedicated to her life and work. Her description isn’t a contradiction in terms, exactly, but it does highlight two traits that are rarely twinned, particularly to positive effect. It’s an apt pairing, however, both for Tsemel herself — after a career spent fighting the justice system with few outright victories to show for it, she retains a dogged faith in the possibility of change — and for the tough-minded, clear-eyed film that directors Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche have made in unsentimental thrall to her.
Following two cases that exemplify Tsemel’s dedication to defending Palestinians charged with terrorist acts, it’s a gripping procedural that intelligently expands into more searching questions over the Israel-Palestine divide and one woman’s precarious, often unpopular role as what some may call a mediator and others, well, a devil’s advocate. Unpretentiously but not undynamically assembled — and mustering a surprising degree of legal-drama tension despite no access to the courtrooms where its subject goes to battle — this Swiss-Canadian-Israeli has been steadily accruing festival honors since its Sundance premiere in January; its recent inclusion on the 15-film shortlist for the feature documentary Oscar offers a further profile boost as the Film Movement release begins its U.S. theatrical run.
Stocky and diminutive in stature, with a knife-sharp expression that occasionally cracks into a wry smile, Tsemel doesn’t look much like any movie lawyer of the John Grisham model, though you’d also be hard pressed to believe she’s already in her seventies. Sheer drive keeps her going, it seems, as well as the unspoken sense that if she stops doing what she does in Jerusalem’s courts, not many will step forward to accept her workload. At best, Tsemel’s job is thankless: a stone in the shoe of the judicial system, pushing for fair treatment of her oft-demonized clients. At worst, she herself is vilified for her fellow Israelis, with scant rewards: “For us, a victory is one year deducted from a five-year sentence,” she says wearily.
Even that outcome looks a pipe dream for the unhappy case on which the film opens, despite the heartbreaking youth of the accused. 13-year-old Palestinian boy Achmad was roped by his older brother into an attempted stabbing massacre on a Jerusalem street. Despite his insistence (backed by video evidence) that he was ultimately not directly involved in the attacks, he’s portrayed by the media (and in a furious public statement given by Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu) as a dangerous terrorist. Tsemel knows the odds are stacked against him; the outlook isn’t much better for her other client Israa, a young Palestinian woman accused of planning a suicide bombing.
Jones and Bellaïche — a longtime doc d.p. taking his first directing credit here, also lensing proceedings with brisk, anxious energy — follow Tsemel’s daily preparations and negotiations for the unseen trials with a compassionate but unobtrusive gaze, as well as a keen interest in legal nitty-gritty. Her clients’ faces are innovatively protected, using a split-screen technique that renders their half of the frame in striking, monochrome rotoscoped animation: a black-and-white realm, streaked with news headlines, that reflects how the media sees their very gray cases. A lively community of peers and colleagues emerges, too, from this solo portrait, most compelling among them her weary Palestinian co-counsel Tareq Barghout: a postscript, added since the Sundance premiere, details his own recent arrest (though not his subsequent conviction) on charges of terrorism, with Tsemel naturally taking his case. (Clearly, there’s another documentary to be made here.)
Deftly woven through these urgent contemporary matters are flashbacks to Tsemel’s formative years as a lawyer, covering her strident student activism, her amoral alignment with those least fairly represented in the courts, and the greatest legal achievement of her career: a 1999 Supreme Court verdict that banned the Israeli secret service from using torture in the interrogation of detainees. (Though, as a fellow lawyer ruefully notes, they’ve only found subtler ways to deploy such methods since: every win in this world is a qualified one.)
Most poignantly telling, however, are interviews with Tsemel’s husband, the well-known anti-Zionist campaigner Michel Warschawski, as well as her children, who paint a portrait of a woman whose tireless championing of others’ rights has come at some cost to her own family life: “Do you know what it’s like to have an 800-page legal file in the bed between you?” quips Warschawski, whom Tsemel herself has defended in court before. Her son Nissan, however, sound slightly less jovial about both his parents’ crusading. “If I saw this character in a documentary, I’d say, wow, how brave,” he says — the ensuing “but” is implied. Tsemel’s hard demands on her family and co-workers alike are kept in view: “Advocate” isn’t a bland hagiography, but a textured nonfiction character study of complicated heroism. You can’t challenge the system, after all, without being a bit challenging yourself.