“ADVOCATE”– Lea Tsemel, Israeli Defense Attorney




Lea Tsemel, Israeli Defense Attorney

Amos Lassen


Lea Tsemel is a 74-year-old Israeli political firebrand, who has dedicated her career to challenging Israel’s two-tier justice system. In Israel there are different judicial standards for Israeli citizens and Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Tsemel sees herself as an “angry and optimistic woman” known for her quick sardonic retorts and unselfconscious in her moral convictions. Her opponents see her as “the devil’s advocate” or traitor to her country and her defense of would-be suicide bombers and other violent offenders is even difficult for pro-Palestinian pacifists.

Much of the film follows two inflammatory court cases in 2015-2016. One involves the youngest defendant Tsemel has ever had: a 13-year-old Palestinian boy charged, along with his 15-year-old cousin with the attempted murder of two Israelis in a knife attack in one of the illegal settlements. Through video footage, which was widely seen throughout Israel, the older boy was shot dead by security forces while the younger was run over by a car before his arrest. The other case is of a 31-year-old woman who was left badly burned by a car explosion in what the court determined was a failed suicide bombing.

The film is a talking heads plus archival clip biography of Tsemel who was a law student during the 1967 Israeli-Arab war in which she was a volunteer. However, the sight of refugees fleeing the Israeli forces brought back family stories of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and this brought about her life-long opposition to the occupation and her challenges to the military justice used for the Palestinian population.

Michel Warchawski, Tsemel’s pro-Palestinian activist husband, gives an amusing account of his wife. During a period when he was jailed for helping Palestinian extremists and complained about the intense interrogations they had to deal with, she told him he needed to man up or he wasn’t worthy to be her husband. (Her adult son and daughter see her somewhere between embarrassment and awe). We see how her legal history includes many losses and a few incremental wins, including her part in getting a 1999 Israel Supreme Court ruling which limited the use of torture in interrogations.

We do not get much  from Tsemel’s critics and we see her as a unique crusading figure. The documentary isup close and personal and is directed byRachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche. We see Tsemel in motion on a bisected screen with live-action footage on the left and animated imagery on the right..

This has been Tsemel’s life for decades, working on behalf of people viewed by many  as inferiors and fanatics. Here is Tsemel’s tireless routine as she demonstrates how one person lives morally and ethically within a system that is little more than a swamp of misunderstanding.

There are flashbacks to Tsemel’s past, detailing her budding student activism, her fraught attempts to raise her family and her fervent efforts leading to a landmark 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that outlawed the use of torture when interrogating detainees.

Jones and Bellaïche would seem to be at a disadvantage because their cameras were not allowed in the courtrooms for these trials. But this works to the film’s advantage. We mainly watch Tsemel and her clients as they either ready for or react to their days in court. Tsemel is fully aware of the likeliest outcome, and she frequently assumes a position of preemptive consoler.

Jones and Bellaïche combine a biographical profile and an interrogation of the Israeli justice system here as they focuses on Tsemel’s life and work .


About Film Movement


Founded in 2002, Film Movement is a North American distributor of award-winning independent and foreign films based in New York City. It has released more than 250 feature films and shorts culled from prestigious film festivals worldwide including the Oscar-nominated films Theeb (2016) and Corpus Christi (2020). Film Movement’s theatrical releases include American independent films, documentaries, and foreign art house titles. Its catalog includes titles by directors such as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Maren Ade, Jessica Hausner, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrzej Wajda, Diane Kurys, Ciro Guerra and Melanie Laurent. In 2015, Film Movement launched its reissue label Film Movement Classics, featuring new restorations released theatrically as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, including films by such noted directors as Eric Rohmer, Peter Greenaway, Bille August, Marleen Gorris, Takeshi Kitano, Arturo Ripstein, King Hu, Sergio Corbucci, Ettore Scola and Luchino Visconti. For more information, please visit www.filmmovement.com. Visit www.filmmovementplus.com for more information about Film Movement Plus, the new subscription streaming service from Film Movement.