Documentary on Israeli Lawyer Defending Palestinians Accused of Terrorism Shortlisted for Oscar

Five finalists for award will be announced next month ■ ‘Stay Close,’ produced by Israeli Nevo Shinaar, shortlisted in the documentary short category

Itay Stern
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From the documentary "Advocate" about Lea Tsemel.
From the documentary "Advocate" about Lea Tsemel.Credit: Philippe Bellaiche / Courtesy of
Itay Stern

The Israeli documentary “Advocate,” directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, is one of 15 films short-listed for the documentary feature category at the 2020 Oscars, the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on Tuesday.

The academy will announce the five finalists next month, with the Oscars ceremony to follow February 9.

The film is competing against the likes of Feras Fayyad’s “The Cave,” which profiles a makeshift hospital in a cave located under ruins in Syria, “For Sama” by Waad Al-Khateeb, which is also about the war in Syria but from the perspective of a woman in Aleppo, and “One Child Nation,” which is about China’s draconian one-child policy.

At the center of “Advocate” is Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel, who defends Palestinians, including those accused of terror attacks. It was named best picture at Tel Aviv’s Docaviv film festival, after which a group of bereaved Israeli parents launched a campaign against it, asserting it hurt their feelings. Culture Minister Miri Regev then criticized the film as anti-Israeli. Channel 8, which produced the film and broadcast it in Israel, and screened it at the DocAviv film festival, released it on YouTube following attempts to censure the film so that it would be accessible to all.

“Advocate” also won best picture in the Krakow Film Festival, Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and was screened in two of the most important film festivals in the United States, Sundance and Tribeca. Last month, the film won best documentary at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, Asia's equivalent of the Oscars.

Another film with an Israeli connection being considered for an Oscar is “Stay Close,” which will compete in the documentary short film category. Israeli Nevo Shinaar was the film’s producer, which Luther Clement and Shuhan Fan directed. The short profiles African American fencer Keeth Smart, who overcomes obstacles on his way to the Beijing Olympics. The film also screened at the Sundance Festival and combines family archival clips with black-and-white animation.

Shinaar, a graduate of the Tel Aviv University film school, started working with Clemens and Shuhan on the film when they met while doing their Master’s studies in documentary media at Northwestern University in Chicago. “The film is part of the change that is transpiring in the American industry, which is enabling different stories and voices in the mainstream,” Shinaar said in an interview. “As an Israeli, I am proud to be part of this change, which is very connected to the values I was brought up on.”