Thursday, November 14, 2019

Other Israel Film Festival Spotlight: Advocate

I’m delighted to be returning for the seventh time to cover the Other Israel Film Festival, which features a diverse crop of Israeli and Palestinian cinema and is hosted by the JCC Manhattan. The 13th Annual Other Israel Film Festival takes place November 14th-21st, 2019.

Directed by Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones
Festival Information

It’s rare to find a film that’s truly honest, one that treats its subject completely objectively and allows it to stand on its own. In narrative filmmaking, there’s a tendency to play up the reputation and stature of a protagonist, and documentaries often become so intertwined with the people and cause they’re following that they can’t be separated from them. If it’s not clear how the filmmakers feel about the people, organizations, or events they’re profiling, it’s the mark of a presentation that truly seeks to showcase life as it is, passing no judgment on what it is that’s because spotlighted, no matter how controversial.

Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel has earned plenty of notoriety for herself over the years, defending Palestinians in court when few of her peers do so. While a law student at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Tsemel became involved in Matzpen, an anti-occupation organization, and met her future husband Michel, who also works in human rights. Tsemel proudly represents Palestinians accused of any crime, including violent acts deemed terrorism, fighting to give those she sees as prejudiced against by the legal system in Israel a chance since she believes that everyone is entitled to a defense.

At multiple points throughout this film, Tsemel is asked whether there’s a “red line” that she uses to gauge whether or not to take someone on as a client, to which she responds that there is not. The primary case featured here is that of a thirteen-year-old Palestinian boy whose brother was killed while carrying out a stabbing attack, and Tsemel does her best to argue that his intent wasn’t to kill and that he didn’t actually stab anyone. There’s something to be said for her eagerness to give anyone who needs representation, especially in an environment where that is not at all common and public opinion is decidedly against those who carry out attacks on Israelis.

This film, like its subject matter, doesn’t apologize at all for the work it’s showcasing. It’s certainly a hot-button topic, especially since Tsemel makes no acknowledgment of the severity of crimes committed, equating the term “terrorist” to “freedom fighter” under a different dictionary’s definition. This is a straightforward portrait of a woman who isn’t typically awarded that privilege, and who is more than happy to share her opinion whenever asked as well as when she isn’t. It will surely be unsettling to some audiences, but it’s the perfect film to open the Other Israel Film Festival, shining a light on part of society that, as Tsemel would argue, deserves some representation.


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