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Rachel Leah Jones, Lea Tsemel • Director and protagonist of Advocate

“A shared sense of humanity is essential”


- We met with Advocate's co-director Rachel Leah Jones and protagonist Lea Tsemel at Bologna's Biografilm Festival to discuss the documentary, harshly criticised by the Israeli Minister of Culture

Rachel Leah Jones, Lea Tsemel • Director and protagonist of Advocate
Lea Tsemel (left) and Rachel Leah Jones (© Monica Straniero)

For many years, lawyer Lea Tsemel has defended Palestinian rights in Israeli courts, and, as a result, Advocate [+see also:
film review
interview: Rachel Leah Jones, Lea Tsemel
film profile
, the documentary made in her name, directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, has been heavily criticised by the Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev (read our news). We spoke about this and more with the director and her protagonist at Bologna’s Biografilm Festival (running 7-17 June), where Advocate has been selected to participate in the Contemporary Lives section of the event.

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Cineuropa: Following the film’s triumph at Docaviv and its subsequent eligibility for the Oscars, Minister Regev criticised the work as unworthy of representing Israel in the wider world. Your thoughts?
Rachel Leah Jones: First of all, a technical clarification: in the documentary category of the Academy Awards, nominations are based upon the quality of the works themselves, not on whether they’re representative of a country or not. So, there’s clearly been some kind of misunderstanding on the Minister’s part. As for the content, cinematic works addressing storylines which don’t square with the position of the current government are never seen in a positive light, especially when it comes to Minister Regev who has created this alliance between loyalty and culture: she has nothing against freedom of expression, but if you look to address certain off-limit themes, you can wave goodbye to public funding. The debate has been ongoing for four years now, because it’s a highly questionable system.

Lea Tsemel: I would like to say to our Minister for Culture that she should be happy with the film, because things go exactly the way she’d like them to: we lose every time. 

You two have known each other for over 20 years. Where did the idea for the documentary originate?
I’m 48 years old and I met Lea when I was 22. My dream was to become like her. When I started making films, I immediately thought that this would be the perfect subject-matter. Then, when I met my co-director Philippe Bellaïche, we said to ourselves: we should be the ones to do it. Philippe is also a cameraman and as he filmed Lea, he understood right away that she was the epitome of cinéma vérité: she instantly forgot about the camera and was herself at all times.

This isn’t a film about me, it’s the story of any lawyer who finds herself/himself fighting against the atrocities which are committed on a daily basis against the Palestinian people. There’s so much that needs to be done in our country. Every day, each of us has to contend with new verdicts, trials, lawsuits: it’s our life, the professional choice we’ve made, and we have to work hard.

The film focuses on two cases: that of a child and of a woman. Why these cases in particular?
We started to think about the project half-way through 2015. It was a time of relative calm, so we concentrated on historical cases that Lea had taken on in her career. Then, this little boy arrived. We were amazed by this thirteen-year-old’s ability to fight his own corner and we found ourselves thinking about the tragedy of all these children who now feel obliged to carry on with a fight which our generation has failed to bring to a happy conclusion. Then, the woman’s case came to our attention, another victim forced to commit a crime out of desperation. So, we dropped the past causes and framed these two cases within the story of Lea’s life.

What gave you the idea to depict the defendants in drawings?
Israel isn’t a progressive country in oh so many ways. However, there is a law in place for the safeguarding of minors which prevents them from being filmed throughout their trial. This law is ignored by the media, but we decided to set an example by not reproducing this violation. As regards the woman, it was a question of ethics: she’d lost her humanity, her dignity, her sense of womanhood, but she’s still a person and she deserves respect. Blurring or pixelating images of these individuals would have been tantamount to erasing them. We wanted to guarantee their anonymity while retaining their humanity. The idea was to create a collage making use of everything Lea had on her desk: press cuttings, law books, rulings, scribbles. The idea was also to provide a visual representation of these people who have become, after 50 years of occupation, historical and political constructs.

“We lose every time”: Lea also says this in the film. And yet, we’re also told of a great victory: the fight against the torture carried out by the Israeli security services.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruling against the security service’s torture methods, which were judged to be inadmissible and illegal, was a victory which made me incredibly happy. But it didn’t last long: they got around it by creating new rules and exceptions. The situation isn’t improving for Palestinians in terms of the recognition and respect of their human rights. To those who ask me why I keep going, I reply that there has to be someone there for them and that a shared sense of humanity is essential.

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(Translated from Italian)

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