Documentary on Lea Tsemel, Israeli Lawyer Who Defends Palestinians, Wins Emmy

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Lea Tsemel in a scene from the film 'Advocate.'
Lea Tsemel in a scene from the film 'Advocate.'Credit: Philippe Bellaïche
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

The Israeli documentary film, “Advocate,” which follows noted human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, who defends Palestinians in Israeli courts, won the award for Best Documentary on Wednesday at the 42nd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards.

The film, directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche and originally produced for Israel’s Hot 8, focuses on the personality of Tsemel, a human rights lawyer who represents Palestinians in Israeli courts. It was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2019. The film was also nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Politics and Government Documentary category.

Following their win, the filmmakers released a statement referencing a part of the film, in which talk show host Judy Nir-Mozes tells Tsemel, "I can't understand you at all." To which Tsemel responds: "You should try to understand me, because…I am the future."

"It seems the future is already here," the filmmakers said. "The next step is to give rise to justice and equality for everyone."

Other winners at the awards, which were held separately from the awards ceremony for television series, included “Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool” for Best Arts and Culture Documentary, “The Story of Plastic" for Best Writing and "Kingdom of Silence," about Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for Best Politics and Government Documentary.

Over 2,200 documentary films, which were first broadcast on television in 2020, competed for the award, and the winners were chosen by a group of 950 U.S. documentary professionals.

An American version of Advocate was broadcast as part of the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s leading documentary strand, POV, and reached about 200 million screens across North America.

Before it aired on American television, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festivsl and won a clutch of prizes including the Best Film award at Tel Aviv’s DocAviv festival in 2019.

The DocAviv award caused a political uproar. Following political pressure exerted by right-wing activists, Mifal Hapayis, the state-owned lottery company, said it would pull funding for future awards granted to best picture winners at the festival, and refused to award the producers the prize money.

Artists in the film and television industries protested the move, saying it would silence creative voices and amounted to censorship. Three authors – Nomi Levitsky, Lea Aini and Orit Wohlfeiler – removed their names from the list of candidates for the Sapir Prize, another honor awarded by Mifal Hapayis. Scores of other writers claimed that the company had withdrawn support for the film “for improper political reasons” and promised that if they won the prize, they would share the winnings with the producers of Advocate.

Ultimately, Mifal Hapayis reneged on its decision to withdraw its support from the DocAviv festival.

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