For 50 years, Lea Tsemel has almost exclusively defended Palestinians within the Israeli court system, with her clients including everything from activists to petty criminals to would-be suicide bombers. Profiling Tsemel, Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s documentary Advocate, now in theaters after making the festival rounds last year, examines both the events that have shaped her political convictions and the constant challenges she faces acting on those convictions.
At the heart of both the film and Tsemel’s fight is the seemingly intractable contradiction not just in Israeli law but in its very society. How does the basic concept of “justice” even hold water in an apartheid state, one in which the colonized are expected to play by the rules of the colonizers? Tsemel, born to Holocaust escapees who believed in the salvation offered by Zionism, describes becoming cognizant of this discrepancy in college, as her elation over the Six-Day War gave way to recognition of the commonalities between her parents and those made refugees by her country’s actions. We see Palestinians accused of even the least destructive crimes immediately branded as “terrorists,” with throngs of Jewish Israelis baying for their blood.
Jones and Bellaiche, though mainly sticking to conventional documentary construction, throw in an interesting formal tic to visually convey the fission between how Tsemel’s clients act and their portrayal in the media and culture. Occasionally the screen will split, with half in live action and the other half in crude animation rotoscoped over the image, with the figures shaped around snippets from various news articles and headlines. It is a low-key but damning condemnation of how Palestinians are dehumanized. The same thing happens to Tsemel, who describes with wry apathy the various death threats and curses she’s received over the decades from people who believe she has crawled into bed with the Devil. That dehumanization is acutely felt in the case Tsemel has taken on while the cameras follow her for this film: that of a 13-year-old boy who was interrogated by police with a crack in his skull.
Mainstream media is usually loath to grant Palestinians even the slightest sympathy, so it’s surprising that Advocate has been shortlisted for the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Whether it actually gets nominated remains to be seen (the nominations will be announced January 13), but even this honor is notable. Maybe there’s a perceptual shift at play, or maybe the film is simply good enough to break past that bias. It certainly rises above the usual standard of both biographical and political docs.
Advocate is now playing in select theaters.
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.