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  • TBC
  • Biography, Documentary
  • 2007
  • 137 mins

Terror's Advocate

Terror's Advocate

Synopsis

Barbet Schroeder's documentary filters the history of twentieth century terrorism through the extraordinary story of lawyer Jacques Vergès

About

Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader whose policies of 'purification' led to the deaths of a million-and-a-half Cambodians, may have few defenders, but there is one man on whose advocacy such extreme ideologues have been able to rely. "Jacques Vergès," Pol Pot is seen declaring at the beginning of Terror's Advocate, "wrote that he knew me for 20 or 30 years as someone polite, discreet and smiling."

It is the kind of character reference that we might expect to come from the lawyer who boasts that he would represent Hitler, adding that he would "even defend Bush - but only if he agrees to plead guilty." Indeed, Vergès' clients have included terrorists of every political colour, not to mention 'the Butcher of Lyon' Klaus Barbie and Yugoslavia's despot Slobodan Milosevic.

Yet as Barbet Schroeder's intriguing documentary suggests, there may be more to Vergès' choices of advocacy than a mere belief in every defendant's right to legal representation. For whether he is acting for militant leftists or Nazis, what appears to drive him is a desire to expose the evils of France's colonial history, as well as a thirst for publicity. Along the way, Schroeder raises troubling questions as to where Vergès was and what he might have been doing during the years 1970 to 1978, when he in effect disappeared.

Schroeder's film is like a head-spinning primer on the emergence and evolution of terrorism in the twentieth century, filtered through Vergès himself. In a series of riveting interviews, Vergès offers himself as a material witness and a most unreliable narrator of his own times. For his disarming bonhomie masks a monstrous discretion, and he traffics as much in insinuations and evasions as in voluble boasts. He is, despite the objectionable nature of many of his views, the very model of roguish charm - which makes him the perfect spokesman for political movements that have always, for all their dubiousness, proven irresistibly alluring to so many.

As in his earlier documentary Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974), Schroeder lets his subject speak for himself, and allows viewers the freedom to draw their own conclusions. Despite an initial claim (in text form) at the beginning that the film reflects the director's point of view, in fact Schroeder remains unseen and unheard throughout - although his hand can certainly be felt in the editing, where one event or character is freely associated with the next, as talking heads, file footage and headlines are intermixed in the most slyly suggestive of ways, creating at least the semblance of a coherent history of political violence. Many will leave the cinema genuinely uncertain whether Vergès is a central figure in a global conspiracy or just a self-promoting grandstander with an unsavoury attraction to the world's most deadly outcasts.

Coming in at well over two hours, Terror's Advocate may seem long, but it is so saturated with dizzying detail and so furiously paced that you are barely left with time to come up for air. In fact, the abundance of explosive intrigue, coupled with Jorge Arriagada's noirish score, makes this the closest thing to a blend between documentary and political thriller since Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle Of Algiers in 1966.

Indeed, Terror's Advocate features the sequence from Pontecorvo's film where actress Samia Berkash is shown planting a bomb in the city's crowded Milk-Bar. The inclusion of this sequence does more than merely advertise the generic allegiances of Vergès's story - for the real Milk-Bar bomber, Djamila Bouhired, was represented in court by Vergès, whose innovative 'rupture defence' saved her from execution and transformed her into an international icon of resistance. The revolutionary and her advocate would marry and have two children together - only for Vergès, without warning or notice, to abandon Bouhired altogether in 1970 in his further, questionable pursuit of "what seemed important".

Bouhired, we learn at the end, still spurns honours, interviews or celebrity of any kind. The same, as this film proves, cannot be said of the self-serving Vergès. Ultimately, his smug, smooth-tongued story is about the way that high ideals and heartfelt commitment can change over time. Vergès has a lot to say on behalf of himself and others, but it is only when it comes to subjects that might leave him "vulnerable" (legally or otherwise), or to the pain, anguish and death caused by the errant ideologies which he so glibly defends, that this advocate of terror remains strangely silent.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Magdalena Kopp, Bachir Boumaâza, Siné, Hans-Joachim Klein, François Genoud, Jacques Vergès, Maher Souleima, Yasef Saadi, Neda Vidakovic, Lionel Duroy
  • Director: Barbet Schroeder
  • Screen Writer: Barbet Schroeder
  • Producer: Rita Dagher
  • Photographer: Caroline Champetier, Jean-Luc Perréard
  • Composer: Jorge Arriagada

In a nutshell

As riveting as it is dizzying, Schroeder's documentary thriller takes a mesmerising ad hominem approach to twentieth century terror, offering up for our judgement an advocate whose views ought to be indefensible.

by Anton Bitel

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