Israelis are Ready for Another Narrative
Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, authors of the documentary Advocate, speak about their directorial approach and the context of documentary filmmaking in Israel.
FOTO: Philippe Bellaïche
Documentary film Advocate (2019.) by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche is the winner of the Movies that Matter prize on this year’s edition of the documentary film festival ZagrebDox. The film depicts the life and work of Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel who, in her fifty-year career, specialized in defending Palestinian political prisoners. Since its first screenings at film festivals around the world in 2019, the film has received positive reactions, but also generated heated debate, while also entering the final selection for the Oscar award nominations.
We spoke to Jones and Bellaïche about their directorial process and decisions, the position of contemporary documentary filmmakers in Israel and funding possibilities available to Israeli and Palestinian directors.
KP: Advocate is, at the same time, a film about the Israeli legal system and a portray of the attorney Lea Tsemel. Could you tell us more about the choices you made as directors in "balancing" between these two powerful political topics?
P.B.: Advocate is a "character driven film" more than it is a political exposé or a personal portrait. Lea Tsemel’s legal work over the past five decades cannot be separated from the 50-year history of the occupation. As much as Lea was forced to comply with a would-be pre-existing legal framework (which, in fact, was contoured along with the occupation), her legal battles in and out of court influenced the jurisprudence of this framework. To put it simply, even if she did not stop the occupation, she did make it a bit more difficult for the occupier to occupy. As one military judge famously put it: "If Lea Tsemel didn't exist, we’d have had to invent her." Of course, in making this film, we wanted to hear Lea; even though what she believes in (in theory) and what she does (in practice) – can be summarized quite simply. What was more interesting to us was to see how she does what she does, to capture Lea in action.
KP: The majority of the plot, in which we follow Lea and her legal team in a variety of court proceedings and conversations with her defendants is presented very direct, even in a "classical documentary", fly-on-the-wall and cinéma vérité style. Why did you decide to represent Lea and her work in this manner and what do you think how does this approach affect the perception of the plot?
P.B.: It was not so much a choice as a desire. The desire to document, to see (and show) how Lea, her colleagues, her clients, the legal system, and the media – operate. Scripting in documentary cannot be separated from the reality on the ground. We began with ideas about the themes we’d like to cover and how we’d like the film to look and feel – after the first scouting days. But already after the first shooting day we began to adapt and re-write. This re-writing began while filming and continued throughout editing. In fact, in this film, shooting and editing were not separate processes: we first filmed the "direct cinema," what we called the "real time" footage, then edited it, and only after we had an assembly of that we began working on the archival research and interviews for the "past cases."
During the "real time" phase, the "direct cinema" if you will, we followed five cases (in the film you see only two, and get a glimpse of the third). We couldn’t know in advance what reality was going to bring, nor which situations would best reveal the reality beyond this reality (i.e. the larger framework of occupation). Direct cinema is like slow food, you go out for a filming day and you capture whatever happens, even if it feels mundane, and with time, you train your gaze, and begin to see things, small details that you would not have seen if you had come to film one specific event or with too much of a preconceived agenda.
In Advocate, direct cinema has great influence on the viewer. With direct cinema we managed to give the viewer a dual perspective: to see Lea in the world and also the world according to Lea; to expose her point of view, and in a way, from there, to better understand her sense of juridical and political justice, or more simply, her own brand of humanism.
KP: Occasionally, the film takes us back to different moments of Lea's past, which greatly contributes to the understanding of the context of her work. For what reason did you decide to include her private life in the film? What do you think this decision brought to the film?
P.B.: At the very beginning, we imagined we were going to film Lea at home as well as at work, with her family and friends, grandchildren and neighbours... and then, after we began to film, we understood that to film her at work, between the office and court, was enough. Lea the lawyer (as opposed to the mother, wife, etc.), is the woman we wanted to portray. But we also knew that there is no such thing as an abstract individual – behind profesional life there is personal life and the prices paid for dedicating oneself so unconditionally to your clients and their cause. With the testimonies of her children, who did not always have the mother they needed or wanted, we felt we were giving a rounder picture of the Lea, a rounder picture of the human condition.
KP: The question of ethics and the just representation of film subjects is already a well-known topic in documentary filmmaking. The central part of Advocate is the case of 13-year-old Ahmad who got sentenced for participating in an armed attack, even though he did not personally hurt anyone. For the purpose of protecting Ahmad's identity, you used a very specific minimalistic animation. Why did you choose this particular way of representing Ahmad?
In Israel, the law is protecting the future of any minor involved in a legal process. You cannot reveal their identity. They have to be unrecognisable now or twenty years from now... This law is applying to any minor, and to Ahmad as well. Some news outlets did not comply with the law but most of them did, blurrying or pixelizing his face. But these techniques, apart from the fact that they are very connoted (it is usually the "bad one" that you are hiding behind a pixelated face) do not let us see the human being, his emotions... At best, we are looking at a mask... We decided to work with the animator Tal Kantor to create a multilayered rotoscope based on the video image. We were looking for a way to let transpire some facial expressions, to keep the humanity of the characters without anybody being able to identify them.
To compose some of the layers of the rotoscope, we intended to use some artefacts from Lea’s past. At her office we found old press clips, old legal documents that we used. Our idea was to remind ourselves, and the viewer of the 50 years of occupation. Today's cases cannot be disconnected from this past.
We did not want to create a parallel world – the world of animation VS the real world. To make our point clear, we choose to split the image: one side for the video, the other for the animation, the multilayered rotoscope. As a result, you can see some shots where Lea is moving from one side of the image to the other side, from the unadulterated video footage to the rotoscope side. We did not think about it in advance, but when we saw these shots, we felt it was quite a good metaphor of what Lea does, moving seamlessly from one side of the reality to the other.
KP: Broadly speaking, how are the questions of representation of the Palestinian minority and Israeli-Palestinian relations posed and treated in contemporary Israeli documentary film?
R.L.J.: By and large, Israeli documentarians are politically left-leaning, and have tackled the Israeli-Palestinain conflict in myriad ways. These days, the well-meaning yet often patronizing (perhaps even colonialist) notion of "giving voice" has largely been replaced with an "urban anthropology" practice of storytelling wherein the subject objectifies him/herself. In other words, Israelis are starting to document the occupier more than the occupied. This genre includes hard-hitting essay films as well as "shooting and crying" confessional films. Lea, in a sense, "occupies" an interesting middle as an occupier who identifies with the occupied. The danger of this film is a narcissistic eclipsing of the Palestinains altogether, something which we hope the politics of representation in Advocate manages to avoid.
KP: Is it possible to talk about this film as a "resistance film"and in what way you interpret its involvement in its immediate social and political context?
R.L.J.: A close friend of ours, an African American civil rights lawyer in the US, recently made an astute observation. "We," she said in reference to the Black Lives Matter and other progressive movements for justice and equality, "do not resist. We are the ones being resisted! Nor do we persist; that feels too much like surviving rather than thriving. What we do is insist." This idea might well apply to Lea Tsemel as a life practice and hopefully the film we made about her is of a similar quality.
KP: How do you look at the role of the contemporary documentary filmmaker in current global turmoils and how would you position yourself and your work in the aforementioned context?
R.L.J.: Godard once said: "What is Cinema? Nothing. What does Cinema want? Everything. What can Cinema do? Something." We are in it for that something.
KP: Could you tell us more about the process of distribution of such strongly political films in Israel? To what extent is the festival system open for them?
R.L.J.: Israel is a democracy for the privileged, and we are counted among its privileged. Israel, while oppressive and repressive to Palestinians, is not an authoritarian society. For people like us, who express critical, perhaps dissident voices, it’s still pluralistic. This pluralism has decreased in recent years, but not disappeared. Film festivals, film funds, and private broadcasters remain some of the most open-minded and supportive cultural institutions for people like us. The question is what does all that pluralism mean without distributive justice, without equality for all.
KP: What is the cultural policy in Israel in relation to the public funding of films dealing with these kinds of political topics? What is the position of Palestinian directors in this context, are the institutions of public funding available to them equally?
R.L.J.: Our reception at DocAviv – the site of our Israeli premiere – was beyond our wildest expectations. Initially the film was scheduled for three screenings. Before the festival opened, they all sold out. They added a fourth screening – it sold out. After the film won, they added a fifth screening and it too sold out. Over the course of a week, some 2000 Israeli Jews saw the film. Not a single person hassled or heckled. Lea got standing ovations at all the screenings she attended and we were told that in the screenings we did not attend, people sat in their seats and clapped throughout the end credits. All this defied our imagination and indicated that people were ready for another narrative.
After four years of the most right-wing and overtly racist government Israel had known to date – a period during which people fell silent at worst and minced their words at best – people were ready to push back and carve out some more political space for themselves. It was as if they had said: "If this is the ‘new normal,’ we’re pushing back." And who better to trigger that movement than Lea, "the angry optimistic woman," as she refers to herself in the film.
As I noted earlier, throughout DocAviv, there was no backlash. But soon enough, a small group of bereaved parents were incited by a right-wing vigilante group to protest the award. They took their grievance to the Minister of Culture who then passed the ball to the Arts and Culture Council of the Israel Lottery – the funding body behind the special Oscar-campaign grant (DocAviv is an Oscar-qualifying festival) issued to the winning film in addition to the first prize. Within no time the Lottery caved by rescinding its support for future winning films and putting our grant under legal review.
This prompted another surprise: the entire arts community stood on its hind legs and protested the lottery’s move. Writers, actors, fine artists, theatre folks – there was near wall-to-wall consensus that enough was enough. After people withdrew their candidacies for top literary awards, resigned from selection committees and returned grants unspent, the Israel lottery retracted its revocation and transferred the said funds to DocAviv to the benefit of our film this year, and future films in coming years.
The official announcement was made the day after the latest round of Israeli elections and one could feel that while the proverbial truck that is Israel is still barreling down a slippery slope into a collision course with history, the people have nevertheless forced it to downshift from turbo into 3rd gear. That is, there are more and more signs that the battle for progressive values has been lost – and yet the war ain’t over yet. Now the same battle is transpiring over the fact that the Israeli Academy of Film and Television has nominated Advocate for an Israeli academy award. Palestinains in the West Bank and Gaza do not enjoy these privileges. Palestinian citizens of Israel probably could, if they really wanted to, but have largely chosen to forfeit the role of "token Arab," and instead stand in solidarity with their people living under occupation or in forced exile in the diaspora.