Sundance Review: Advocate (2019) is a Large Voice for Small Justice

Every person on this earth deserves ‘the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ – a phrase most United States citizens know and are privileged to live by. The system of justice as expressed through the Court takes focus in Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s documentary film, Advocate, featured at this year’s Sundance Festival. For decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has flooded headlines and has become one of the most, if not most, divisive issues of the past century. Both sides are emboldened by a sense of righteousness, yet the questions Advocate examines is whether “terrorists” and “political prisoners” are even represented legally in Israel’s court of law. And if so, are they given the appropriate and justified verdict? The Directors draw awareness to the bowels of the Israeli legal system in this documentary in hopes to reform the system and initiate a dialogue for reform.

Meet Lea Tsemel, Israel’s most infamous Jewish-Israeli attorney, who continues to seek justice for Palestinians. For 50 years, Lea has and continues to dedicate her life defending Palestinians who are being charged for violent and nonviolent crimes against Israelis. She believes Palestinians are merely defending their freedom and their right to live, and are victims of their circumstance. Also known as the country’s “Devil’s Advocate”, or in her own words, “losing lawyer”, Lea continues to stand up for what she believes is right, even knowing that some of her battles are already lost.

Directors Jones and Bellaiche first met Lea Tsemel 25 years ago. They quickly became inspired by her wit and rebellious tendencies when she was seen aggressively distributing flyers on her law school campus in great attempts to bring awareness to the occupation and to stop the ongoing violence. Rachel and Philippe were enticed by her zealous attitude and obstinate passion for Palestinian justice. From that point forward, they knew her story had to be told to the world.

Photo Credit: Philippe Bellaiche | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Unlike most of its predecessors centered around the conflict, Advocate is one of the premiere documentaries featuring a strong female character. And although Lea is central to the documentary, the film is intently narrowed and focused in largely addressing one side of the issues presented in the film. This may certainly have audiences questioning the inherent bias presented throughout the documentary. However, it’s less about “who’s right,” and more about a strong woman’s quest to be the ultimate advocate of human rights. 

The Directors bring light to the ongoing occupation through a year’s worth of behind-the-scenes filming. Lea Tsemel is followed throughout her famed case of a 13-year-old boy, her youngest client she has ever had, who is convicted of two attempted murders. Here, you will see a continuous interview of Lea’s current forthright thoughts, her obstacles, her optimistic predictions, and preparing family members and friends with realistic expectations. Meanwhile, real-time propaganda is captured through news media aiming to misinform people with inaccurate facts. The parallels of Israel’s unjust legal system to the United States are appreciated – the kind of system that is broken and heavily influenced by bias and media. It is moreover made apparent the fact that Palestine is not recognized in any way as their own country but as an occupied territory.

Throughout the documentary,  Jones and Bellaiche find a unique way of concealing victims’ identities through animation that assimilates courtroom sketch art or animation in newspaper clippings. This originality creates an ominous feeling that the cycle of political cases will only continue, that these verdicts are already made into old and nugatory news, and how the process will most likely never change.

Photo Credit: Philippe Bellaiche | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

This imposing documentary is remarkable for providing us with another point of view and a spotlight on human rights to this part of the world. The ongoing works of the courageous and passionate Lea Tsemel are inspired. She gives a voice to those who do not have one. She is Palestine’s hero, she is our hero at a distance, and through her great anger, optimism, and bravery, she gives us hope that perhaps, someday, resolution and peace will be found, and suffering will end.


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