Advocate (2019 film)

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Advocate- Lea Tsemel.jpg
Directed byRachel Leah Jones
Philippe Bellaïche
StarringLea Tsemel
Release date
27 January 2019 (USA)
23 May 2019 (Israel)
Running time
108 min

Advocate is a 2019 Israeli documentary film, directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche. The film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Festival, and went on to win top prizes at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Kraków Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival and Docaviv Festival.


The film follows Jewish-Israeli human-rights lawyer Lea Tsemel as she navigates through the Israeli judicial system in defense of Palestinian political prisoners. The film includes archival footage of past cases Tsemel was involved in over a five-decade long career; interviews with Tsemel and her family members, including her husband, Michel Warchowschi and their daughter and son, as well as interns and associates at Tsemel's law firm; and closely follows two contemporary cases represented by Tsemel and her co-counsel, Tareq Barghout.

The first case the film follows is that of 13 year old Ahmad, who together with his 15 year old cousin, Hassan, took to the street with knives. The episode led to the non-fatal stabbing of an Israeli teenager by Hassan, who was then killed by security forces. Though no evidence is presented that Ahmad participated in the stabbing, or planned to use his decorative knife to harm anyone, he is convicted on two counts of attempted murder. The second case is that of Israa Jaabis, who is charged with attempted murder for an act that is interpreted by Israeli officials as a suicide bombing gone wrong. Jaabis had set fire to her car, into which she had placed two butane tanks. She was severely injured, and a policeman was lightly injured. In this case as well, no intent was proven on her part, and Jaabis had a history of suicide attempts, and yet she was easily convicted.

Tsemel explains her commitment to representing Palestinian defendants, whether or not they committed the acts they are accused of, as her responsibility as a member and beneficiary of the conquering power, under which the Palestinians must live, and against which they are justified in struggling for their liberation. She says, "Israelis have no right to tell Palestinians how to struggle." When the television interviewer says she cannot understand this attitude, she answers, "You should try to understand me because I am the future.” She calls herself "an angry optimistic woman", and while she is seen by some as a hero and role model, she is seen by others as a traitor, and has long been the recipient of death threats and vilification, including various epithets by which she is known, including "devil's advocate".

The film incorporates animation in several parts, to protect the identity of various persons.[1]


Advocate was produced by the Israeli Home Made Docs,[2] by the Candian outfit Productions Megafun, and by Swiss groups Close Up Films,[3] RTS Radio Télévision Suisse and SRG SSR.[4]


Advocate's world premiere took place at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it was a nominee for the World Cinema Documentary Competition award. It premiered in Israel at the Docaviv festival on 23 May 2019, where it won the top award. The film opened the 2019 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and plucked top prizes at the Kraków Film Festival,[5] Hong Kong,[6] Docaviv[7] and Thessaloniki[8] festivals. Advocate's Israeli theater premier took place on September 5, 2019, when it opened at theaters nationwide.[9]

Critical reception[edit]

The film was enthusiastically received by film critics and audiences alike. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a score of 100%, based on seven reviews, including The Hollywood Reporter and Sight & Sound.[10]

In her Modern Times review, Bianca-Olivia Nita calls Advocate "infuriating" as well as "inspirational and full of heart". She concludes: It ends in hope that, as long as there are people still living with compassion, there is still a chance for resolution, even if that resolution is – for now – nowhere in sight. It captures the humanity and pain that lays behind aggression and labels, building an insightful picture of a flawed judicial system. One that brings no justice and more pain for those living in what seems a hopeless conflict in a part of the world we choose" to see as very far away."[11]

The British Film Institute review calls the film "gripping", and terms it "by turns inspiring and despairing, settling as a deeply bittersweet portrait of a magnetic individual."[12] Georgia Del Don, reviewing Advocate for Cineuropa, warns viewers that "'the devil’s advocate', as she’s called by many of her Israeli colleagues, has none of the charisma or the motherly devotion of a Mother Teresa character, for example. In fact, it is around the nature of her charisma, which is impossible to label or pin down, that Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche construct their film, a portrayal of a strong female figure who defies each and every convention. Courageous, fun, seductive and unconventional to the say the least, Lea Tsemel embodies an ideal which goes beyond gender and which men and women can both aspire to."[13]

Hollywood Reporter critic Keith Uhlich points out that what would seemingly be a disadvantage to the film – the prohibition of cameras in the courtrooms – actually works to the film's dramatic advantage, heightening the drama of the defendants, attorneys, friends and family nervously waiting in corridors. He adds, "Watching these two trials through to their end lends additional credence to Tsemel's perspective that the Israeli legal system is rigged against Palestinians from the get-go, regardless of their guilt or innocence. How can justice prevail when autocratic impulses so consistently pervert democratic ideals?"[14]

Israeli critic, Erez Dvorah, writes that it is the very controversial nature of Lea Tsemel and her work that makes Advocate required viewing for people from all quadrants of the political map, calling the existence of such a film "essential to the democracy of Israel, in an era where the media is more and more controlled by political agendas. . . A society in which there is a categorical rejection of this type of film is a society taking a significant step farther away from what is commonly called 'democracy'".[15]

Political fallout[edit]

Upon winning the top award in the Israeli Docaviv film festival, Israel's Culture Minister Miri Regev attacked the film and “the choice to make a movie focusing on a lawyer who represents, supports and speaks in the name of many who undermine the State of Israel’s existence, use terrorism against its soldiers and people, and win legal and public support from Tsemel.”[16] Right-wing activists and organizations, including Im Tirtzu, picketed Mifal HaPayis, Israel's national lottery company and the sponsor of Docaviv's main prize, which shortly after announced it would pull funding for future Docaviv festival awards due to pressure from right-wing activists.[17][18] The decision caused a media uproar,[19][20][21] and in response, hundreds of Israeli filmmakers, as well as academics and public figures signed an open letter in support of the film.[22] The Cultural Institutions Forum and multiple creative and artists associations mounted a protest before the organization's offices.[23][24] Two Sapir Award (also sponsored by Mifal HaPayis) judges resigned in protest,[25] while three writers (Naomi Levitsky, Leah Inni and Orit Wolfiler) withdrew their nominations for this award, and dozens of other writers announced that should they ever win this award, they would give some of the money to the filmmakers.[26]


Advocate is currently long-listed for the Academy Awards[27] and European Film Awards[28]

Year Award Category Result
2019 Antenna International Documentary Film Festival Best Feature Film Pending
Audience Choice Award Won
Asia Pacific Film Awards Best Documentary Feature Film Nominated
Cinema Eye Honors Unforgettable Documentary Subject Pending
Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival Politiken's Audience Award Nominated
Docaviv Best Israeli Film Won
Dokufest International Documentary and Short Film Festival Human Rights Award Nominated
Hong Kong International Film Festival Jury Award: Best Documentary Won
Golden Firebird Award Nominated
IDA Documentary Awards Best Feature Film Pending
Best Director (Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Ballaiche) Pending
Krakow Film Festival Golden Horn Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary Won
Sundance Film Festival World Cinema - Documentary Nominated
Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival FIPRESCI Award Won
Golden Alexander Award Won
Transatlantyk Festival: Lodz Kaleidoscope Award Nominated


  1. ^ جدلية, Jadaliyya-. "The Angry Optimistic Life and Times of Lea Tsemel: A Review of "Advocate"". Jadaliyya - جدلية. Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  2. ^ "HOME MADE DOCS". Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  3. ^ " – film production audiovisuel" (in French). Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  4. ^ "Review: Advocate". Cineuropa - the best of european cinema. Retrieved 2019-09-12.
  5. ^ "Advocate comes out on top in Krakow's International Documentary Competition". Cineuropa - the best of european cinema. Retrieved 2019-09-08.
  6. ^ Festival, Asian Film (2019-04-01). "43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival – Firebird Awards 2019". Asian Film Festivals. Retrieved 2019-08-30.
  7. ^ Goodfellow2019-05-30T08:00:00+01:00, Melanie. "'Advocate' scoops top prize at Docaviv". Screen. Retrieved 2019-08-30.
  8. ^ User, PressOffice. "21st Thessaloniki Documentary Festival - The Awards". Retrieved 2019-08-30.
  9. ^ "לאה צמל עורכת דין – סינמטק תל אביב" (in Hebrew). Retrieved 2019-09-08.
  10. ^ Advocate (2019), retrieved 2019-09-12
  11. ^ "Rebel with a lost cause". MTR. 2019-05-24. Retrieved 2019-09-08.
  12. ^ "Advocate review: bittersweet portrait of a tenacious Israeli lawyer | Sight & Sound". British Film Institute. Retrieved 2019-09-08.
  13. ^ "Review: Advocate". Cineuropa - the best of european cinema. Retrieved 2019-09-08.
  14. ^ "'Advocate': Film Review | Hot Docs 2019". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2019-09-08.
  15. ^ "ביקורת סרט - "לאה צמל, עורכת דין" : ככה נראית דמוקרטיה". ynet (in Hebrew). 2019-06-30. Retrieved 2019-09-08.
  16. ^ "Culture Minister Slams Award-winning Documentary on Israeli Lawyer Who Defends Palestinians". Haaretz. 2019-06-04. Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  17. ^ Magid, Jacob. "National lottery pulls funding for festival prize after divisive film wins". Retrieved 2019-08-30.
  18. ^ "Mifal Hapayis walks back support for documentary - Israel News - Jerusalem Post". Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  19. ^ "Docaviv responds to Israeli Culture Minister's attack on Advocate". Cineuropa - the best of european cinema. Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  20. ^ "איגודי היוצרים הפגינו מול מפעל הפיס: "זה לא קזינו - לא מהמרים על התרבות"". ynet (in Hebrew). 2019-06-30. Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  21. ^ "תגובת איגודי היוצרים לפרשת הסרט "לאה צמל - עורכת דין"". איגוד הבמאיות והבמאים (in Hebrew). 2019-06-30. Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  22. ^ "הפגנת יוצרים ואיום בהתפטרות מהמועצה: מחאה נגד מפעל הפיס". וואלה! תרבות (in Hebrew). 2019-06-29. Retrieved 2019-08-30.
  23. ^ "Artists protest Israeli lottery's decision to pull money from film - Israel News - Jerusalem Post". Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  24. ^ "Des artistes protestent contre la décision de la loterie israélienne de retirer de l'argent d'un film - Israel News". Miroir Mag (in French). 2019-07-03. Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  25. ^ "בעקבות סערת מפעל הפיס - שני שופטי פרס ספיר התפטרו". ynet (in Hebrew). 2019-07-01. Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  26. ^ "30 סופרים הודיעו: אם נזכה בפרס ממפעל הפיס, נתרום למימון הסרט על לאה צמל". ynet (in Hebrew). 2019-07-04. Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  27. ^ Goodfellow2019-05-30T08:00:00+01:00, Melanie. "'Advocate' scoops top prize at Docaviv". Screen. Retrieved 2019-08-30.
  28. ^ Dalton2019-08-27T13:20:00+01:00, Ben. "'For Sama', 'Honeyland' among 12-strong European Film Awards documentary longlist". Screen. Retrieved 2019-08-30.

External links[edit]