It’s always heavy.
The crucial truth within Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche‘s documentary Advocate arrives courtesy of their subject Lea Tsemel. She explains how there will be no end to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians until a human understanding of the motives can be reached. Israel’s staunch stance as the unequivocal victim was a lie from the beginning since we all know about the number of people that were displaced upon its creation. So to blindly accept their designation of Palestine as a terrorist community rather than a proud people doing what they can to survive is at best willful ignorance and worst malicious intent. Acknowledging this truth isn’t conversely a blind approval of crimes committed, however. It’s the necessary recognition that justice isn’t supposed to discriminate.
One nation’s terrorists are the other’s freedom fighters. This should be an easy concept to understand for Americans considering our country was born out of revolution and yet the majority of citizens refuse to look beneath the surface horrors of ISIS and accept their government’s policies and their own Islamophobia as key components towards its creation. But that’s the world we live in: one predicated on an “us versus them” mentality through our collective sense of entitlement. Tsemel may have built her career and reputation around the high-profile defense of Palestinian criminals, but your anger doesn’t make her a traitor—especially not in a so-called democracy. Your anger doesn’t absolve you of your contextual presence in the violence wrought by her client. Your anger doesn’t justify swift retribution.
What this film dares to posit while proving that point, however, is that the other side’s anger doesn’t validate its crimes either. Advocates like Tsemel are thus resigned to knowing they’ll lose every case they take with a client who did cause harm. What they refuse to accept is the bloodlust of those perpetuating the cycle while ignoring their own complicity. If Israel—her country—is willing to brainwash its people into believing they aren’t objective occupiers of a displaced people’s land, she will fight to ensure that reality has a voice for those still willing to listen. And maybe if she knocks off a year or two here from a sentence and changes the steep charges born from a judicial double standard there, eyes will get opened.
Maybe she’ll alter the course of Israel’s court system too. Does it seem likely considering the fifty arduous years she’s fought already? No. But that’s no reason to quit on a marginalized people whose humanity is as precious under God as your own (no matter what your faith calls Him/Her). Why then does an Israeli man with a gun who shoots someone get convicted of injurious harm while a Palestinian boy of thirteen wielding a knife he never used receives a charge of attempted murder? The answer is easy: absolute power corrupts absolutely. If Israeli judges have the power to try Israelis one way and Palestinians another, they control the narrative. And suddenly the fate of a child rests in the hands of nationalist sentiment uninterested in evidence.
Tsemel battles just the same and does so with a conviction to stay true to her heart and that of her client even if it means shouldering the blame when things go wrong (something that can’t be said about her regular law partner Tareq Barghout who too often is shown present during good times and absent during bad). It’s this sense of dignity that helps her husband (Michel Warschawski) and children (Nissan and Talila Warschawski) cope with the constant backlash. This is how it’s always been—something Jones and Bellaiche can attest to be constantly highlighting key trials and moments from her past during breaks in the sagas of her two current cases (the aforementioned thirteen-year old Ahmad and an assumed suicide bomber in Israa Jaabis).
It’s through Tsemel’s career that we see the complexity of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict and how things have evolved thanks to changing rhetoric, borders, and rules that may or may not be upheld by the latter’s secret service. There’s the ambiguity of when killings are considered acts of war or murder, the background of decades of occupation that the occupiers won’t admit, and the coerced confessions held as sacrosanct by judges able to declare them such with a simple phrase, “We don’t believe the defendant’s lies of having been tortured.” Rather than be a hopeful story, Advocate is a document of a hopeful figure willing to block out the screams for fealty to a flag when an obligation to human life should forever be of greater importance.
The film follows suit as Jones and Bellaiche take pains to keep Tsemel’s clients’ identities shrouded despite knowing their names. They construct a wall of rotoscoped animation to portray the ethical choice of keeping a boy’s face and a woman’s pain off-screen with a welcome visual flourish. Most of what we see is therefore courtesy of family and the emotional turmoil wrought by watching a bias unfold in ways that guarantee a false admission is safer than going to trial with the delusion that justice might be served. The reason for this unfortunate reality is that all anyone will remember is the guilt. Whether a Palestinian pleads guilty or earns that verdict, your place as monster is assured. Israel always wins. Tsemel strives to heroically mitigate that victory.