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Oscar-Shortlisted Israeli Documentary 'Advocate' Faces Backlash

Jan 12, 2020
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And finally today, the subject seems like good film material - an Israeli lawyer who takes on the defense of Palestinians accused of attacks. The Israeli documentary called "Advocate" has been praised by critics and shows this month in New York and Los Angeles. It's also Israel's entry for an Oscar. But in Israel, it has sparked protest over whether a film sympathetic to Palestinian suspects should get public funding or even be screened at all. NPR's Daniel Estrin saw the film and talked to its central character.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thirteen-year-old Ahmad is led past news cameras into the courtroom. He was part of a stabbing attack with his cousin, who wounded two Israelis. The prosecutor tells the press he's guilty. Then Lea Tsemel jumps in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ADVOCATE")

LEA TSEMEL: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: "Now you've really ticked me off," she says. She's a 75-year-old Israeli who is Ahmad's lawyer. She says her client never intended to kill - only to intimidate. She and the case were at the center of the documentary "Advocate." It tells the story of her nearly 50 years defending Palestinians in court. I meet her in her office in Jerusalem.

TSEMEL: I believe that the film raised some questions that demand an answer now. Do the Palestinians have rights at all to be defended, to be protected? Do they?

ESTRIN: Some Israelis call her a traitor and say she goes a step too far - not just for defending Palestinians in court but because she won't criticize them when they carry out acts of violence. She says they have the right to oppose Israel's military occupation of their home, the West Bank.

TSEMEL: I don't think that me as an Israeli - I have any moral standing to criticize them or to advise them on their way of struggling. I am the Israeli. I am the conqueror.

ESTRIN: The film got Israel's award for best documentary in June, and it's shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. But when it got prize money from Israel's national lottery, there were protests from Israelis whose relatives were killed in Palestinian attacks. I spoke to Boaz Kokia, who lost his son in a stabbing.

BOAZ KOKIA: There is a problem with organizations in Israel and also worldwide that they think that to make films and to explain terrorists - it's nice. But it's very, very bad to give prize to a director who make a film about a lawyer who defends terrorists. It's a shame.

ESTRIN: Under pressure from Israel's minister of culture, the lottery withdrew the money, then restored it after artists protested. But the fight against the film continues. The culture minister doesn't want it shown, and some local festivals have canceled screenings of "Advocate." Amit Goren, whose film foundation helped underwrite the documentary, says some filmmakers now think twice about what films they should make.

AMIT GOREN: It has created frustration, you know? Should they do a film about the occupied territories now? Or maybe find a nice little subject which is compatible with everybody.

ESTRIN: Here's how the film ends. The Palestinian teen is brought to court for sentencing. He'll be in prison for 9 1/2 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ADVOCATE")

TSEMEL: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Tsemel beckons her Palestinian lawyer colleague who's worked with her on the case. But he's distraught and walks away. That's the end of the film, but it's not the end of the story. The Palestinian lawyer starts carrying out shooting attacks. It's noted in a brief epilogue in the film. He targets Israeli jeeps and bullet-proof buses. No one is killed. Tsemel becomes his lawyer, and he's sentenced to 13 1/2 years in prison. I asked her what she thinks about what her former colleague did.

TSEMEL: What should I tell you? It's hurting. Maybe he thought that trying to be a lawyer and trying to help his people through the legal world is not efficient enough. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe I gave him the impression that he should trust the Israeli court more, that he can trust it.

ESTRIN: She says she still finds hope in what she does, fighting for Palestinians in Israeli courts. We finish our interview, and then she rushes to the Supreme Court to defend two young Palestinians accused of killing an Israeli.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.