Documentary on civil rights champion Lea Tsemel premieres July 27
Advocate, a new documentary that features the principle struggles of Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel fighting for the rights of Palestinians, will premiere this week on Point of View on PBS. Many believe it has a shot at an Oscar in the Documentary category
A political firebrand in her home country, Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel is known by political opponents as “the devil’s advocate” for her decades-long defense of Palestinians who have been prosecuted for resisting the occupation, both violently and non-violently.
The thought-provoking, heart-wrenching documentary film Advocate, from filmmakers Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, both captures Tsemel in cinema verité fashion fighting on behalf of her clients in Israel’s challenging two-tier justice system and delves into Tsemel’s personal and political history, by revisiting her landmark cases.
Advocate will have its national broadcast and streaming debut on POV and pov.org on July 27, 2020 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). Advocate is the second film in POV’s 33rd season on PBS.
Advocate had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Earlier this year, the film was shortlisted for the Oscars® for Best Documentary Feature and nominated for the Producers Guild Awards (PGA) for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Motion Pictures. It was also nominated for the IDA Documentary Awards for Best Director and Best Feature.
From feminists and fundamentalists to peaceful demonstrators and armed militants, Lea Tsemel defends Palestinians in both military and civil courts. As a Jewish-Israeli lawyer who has represented political prisoners for nearly 50 years, Tsemel, in her tireless quest for justice, pushes the praxis of a human rights defender to its limits. As far as most Israelis are concerned: she defends the indefensible. As far as Palestinians are concerned: she’s more than an attorney, she’s an advocate.
Called “a lively exercise in documentary advocacy” by POV Magazine, Advocate follows Tsemel’s caseload in real time, including the high-profile trial of a 13-year-old boy — her youngest client to date — accused of two attempted murders in a Jerusalem knife attack and the prosecution of a 31-year old woman for allegedly trying to commit a suicide bombing at a checkpoint. Jones and Bellaïche invite the viewers to assume the privileged position of a fly on the wall in Tsemel’s hectic practice, where a year of documenting is like gathering a lifetime of evidence. This evidence attests to the wrongs of occupation but also to the faults of those who try to resist it, the failings of those who try to defend them, and the fundamental flaws of a legal system that purports to serve justice but in fact serves the powers that be.
Advocate artfully presents Tsemel’s critical, creative, coquettish and at times chaotic navigation of a discriminatory legal system. Animated sequences conceal defendants’ identities with a collage of indictments as Tsemel addresses their near impossible chances for acquittal, while interviews with Tsemel’s family and friends reveal her unique ability to see the humanity of those accused. In her life, as in her work, she straddles an incredible divide. On the one hand, she’s the boy calling the Emperor naked, i.e. naming the system’s intrinsic inequity: the occupier is judging (and jailing) the occupied. On the other hand, she’s the boy with his finger in the dam, doing her utmost to uphold the rule-of-law before the flood of injustice drowns us all.
Filmmakers Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche said: “We first met Lea many years ago. By then, the once anonymous firebrand law student who, following the 1967 war fearlessly distributed flyers on campus warning her fellow Israelis to end the occupation or risk a vicious cycle of violence, was already a household name. For us, socially and politically engaged filmmakers, her rebellious spirit and radical zeal were an inspiration. Lea spoke truth to power before the term became trendy and she’ll continue to do so after fear makes it fashionable. As such, she’s a model we’re hard-pressed to preserve, in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere. And yet Lea, who has spent a lifetime going against the grain of Israeli society, is as much a product of it as she is an exception to it. Through her, we tell another kind of Israeli history, without a capital H. Not the usual: ‘We came, we saw, we conquered, we shot, we cried.’ More like: ‘We cooked, we cleaned, we cursed, we tried to better the world, but didn’t always manage…’ At the end of the day, Advocate is a female-centered portrait of chutzpah put to good use: Lea is more often than not the only woman, or the only Jew, or the only leftist — in the room.”
Blending archival footage with moving testimonials, Advocate also surveys the milestones that shaped Lea’s career. Beginning in 1967, when she volunteered for the war naively hoping it would lead to coexistence and her subsequent “reality check” upon seeing Israeli soldiers expel Palestinians and destroy their homes, and ending decades later with a landmark victory for human rights, in which Lea helped to expose and outlaw inhumane interrogation methods. The fact that the security services have failed to abide by that ruling in full does not keep Tsemel, who calls herself an “angry optimistic woman,” from trying. As one judge put it: “If Lea Tsemel didn’t exist, we’d have to invent her.”
Chris White, Executive Producer of POV said: “Advocate shines a light on a character so steadfast in her conviction about systemic injustice in Israel-Palestine, that she is willing to assume a most unenviable role to affect change. For decades she has challenged the balance of power, questioning how the occupier can judge the occupied. This is a woman who stands for something and we are so proud to bring her story to American audiences on POV.”
An original, provocative film that both exposes the human fallout of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and offers inspiration for a just and joint future, Advocate captured more than a dozen accolades at international film festivals, including “Best Israeli Film” at the DocAviv Film Festival, the Jury Prize at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, First Prize at the Moscow and UK Jewish film festivals, the Bridging the Borders Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Golden Horn at the Krakow Film Festival and the FIPRESCI Prize and Golden Alexander at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival — among others.
Director, Producer: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche
Animation: Tal Kantor
Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White
Produced by American Documentary, POV is the longest-running independent documentary showcase on American television. Since 1988 on PBS, POV has presented films that capture the full spectrum of the human experience, with a long commitment to centering women and people of color in front of, and behind, the camera. It’s on POV where American television audiences were introduced to groundbreaking works like Tongues Untied, The Act of Killing and American Promise and innovative filmmakers including Jonathan Demme, Nanfu Wang, and Laura Poitras. In 2018, POV Shorts launched as the first PBS series dedicated to bold and timely short-form documentaries.
Over a generation, POV has championed accessibility and innovation in nonfiction storytelling. POV Engage works with educators, community organizations and PBS stations to present more than 800 free screenings every year, inspiring dialogue around today’s most pressing social issues. The series’ interactive arm, POV Spark, creates and advances experiential forms of storytelling and programming, redefining U.S. public media to be more inclusive of emerging technologies and interactive makers.
POV films and projects have won 38 Emmy Awards, 23 George Foster Peabody Awards, 12 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards and the first-ever George Polk Documentary Film Award. Learn more at pbs.org/pov and follow @povdocs on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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American Documentary (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, online and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.
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