Most Canadians don’t know the name Lea Tsemel, but tens of thousands of Palestinians do. The Israeli attorney has spent five decades defending them in court, usually on terrorism charges, almost always failing to win over judges and juries.
“We always lose,” she says in Advocate, a new documentary about her that premiered in Canada at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto in late April. “For us, a victory is if we get a deduction of a year out of five.”
That constant failure has not diminished her optimism, however, and that attitude has rocketed her to fame in left-wing Israeli circles.
For the last 19 years, one of her admirers has been Rachel Leah Jones, who moved to the Holy Land with her mom when she was five. Jones first heard about Tsemel when she was in her early 20s, around the time of the Second Intifada. The more she learned about the conflict, the more she sympathized with the Palestinians. She quickly sought out Tsemel personally and has remained close with her ever since.
“She modelled for me an alternative way of being Israeli,” Jones says during a recent visit to Toronto. Tsemel was confident, argumentative and informal – a typical Israeli in every way, except for her political alignment, which has made her a widely hated figure in her own country.
Jones didn’t befriend Tsemel with the idea of documenting her career on film. That didn’t come up until Jones met her filmmaking and life partner, Phillipe Bellaiche, who immediately saw the potential for a feature-length documentary.
At the beginning of the process, Jones and Bellaiche agreed to make a retrospective film that would recall Tsemel’s more influential cases, such as her 1999 Supreme Court victory that limited the use of torture in Israeli interrogations.
But then a wave of stabbings overwhelmed Israel in late 2015 and a flood of new cases fell onto Tsemel’s desk. In real time, the crew realized they were documenting an urgent, current story.
The result is a film that hinges on one infamous case, wherein a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was involved in the death of a 13-year-old Israeli boy. He didn’t actually commit the murder – his friend did – and he remained adamant, throughout every police interrogation, that he did not intend to kill the Israeli boy, just frighten him.
The case became a media sensation in Israel – partly because of the boys’ age and partly because of Tsemel’s difficult defence options. If they pled guilty, he would possibly be sentenced as a minor and sent to a juvenile detention centre. But his birthday was months away and if they dragged out the trial – arguing what they knew was the truth, that he did not intend to kill – then he could be tried as a legal adult and face years in an adult prison. (In Israel, 14 is the legal limit for being tried as an adult.)
“Intuition told us this was gonna be the case we were gonna follow, among other reasons, because you could see that Leah was visibly stirred,” Jones says.
Because of Israel’s privacy laws, Jones and Bellaiche had to film the action from the courthouse hallways, lending an atmosphere to the film that emphasized humanity over legal procedures. To that end, when they learned they were legally required to disguise the face of the accused boy, they decided to render his scenes in cel-shaded animation, rather than blurring out his face.
“I always try to see the person behind the case,” Jones says. “Whether people are, in our minds, protagonists or antagonists, they’re still people.”
Tsemel does the same in her career: rather than writing individuals off as statistics or terrorists, she strives to understand their circumstances and motivations.
“She knows that it is with those people who have been incarcerated and criminalized en masse with whom Israelis will have to share their futures, one way or another,” says Jones.
Advocate is playing as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on Sunday, May 5 at 6:15pm at the Isabel Bader theatre. To purchase tickets, click here.