When you think about justice, you typically think about holding criminals accountable for their crimes and, in some way, honouring victims in the process. However, justice also concerns the right we all have to be treated fairly under the law.
This definition of justice is something in which lawyer Lea Tsemel passionately believes. In Advocate, Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s powerful and thought provoking documentary, we watch as Tsemel - a Jewish-Israeli lawyer who has represented political prisoners for five decades - defends what many Israelis believe is indefensible.
Tsemel’s clients include Palestinian men, women and (heartbreakingly) children - from feminists to fundamentalists, from nonviolent demonstrators to armed militants. Advocate follows her and her high profile caseload and also reflects on the landmark cases of her career to date.
Her achievements are undeniably impressive. However, her choice of career has not made for an easy life. Tsemel is a divisive figure - sometimes called the “devil’s” advocate. As a result, her work has come at a significant cost and, as the documentary reveals, her life and the lives of her friends, family and colleagues have also been impacted - particularly when her cases uncover uncomfortable truths about the Israeli government’s actions and the flaws within its legal system.
Advocate reveals the very real and extremely disturbing stakes at play.
Tsemel is an inspiring and magnetic character - full of passion, drive and a sense that there are not enough hours in the day or years in a life to complete what she so desperately wants to achieve. She appears fearless, energetic and demanding (of herself and others). She is straight talking and she is a realist. Tsemel knows that she will lose many more battles than she will win.
Despite criticism to the contrary, Tsemel does not condone the crimes her clients have allegedly committed. That is not her job. However, she believes fiercely that everyone is entitled to proper representation and a fair trial.
In addition to following her through the courthouse halls where she advises clients (who remain anonymous thanks to the documentary’s effective use of animation), Advocate also takes us behind the scenes in Tsemel’s office. Sitting behind a desk, surrounded by mountains of legal papers, she works tirelessly for justice - something that she believes is fundamental not just in Israel but throughout the world.
Watching Tsemel fight for her clients and emphasise the need for context when considering their alleged crimes, Advocate encourages us to question our own views on the treatment of the “indefensible”.
Of course there are dangerous, problematic people in the world. Of course, crimes need punishment. However, Advocate shows us the importance of an effective and just legal system and makes us grateful that lawyers like Tsemel exist.