Terror's Advocate Review
I don’t know about you, but before Barbet Schroeder’s documentary I had never heard of Jacques Vergès. Which is surprising when you see his résumé as a lawyer, acting as public defender in the trials of former Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie 'The Butcher of Lyon', defending Slobodan Milosevic, and representing the cases of Algerian, Palestinian and international terrorists of the nature of Carlos the Jackal. A man furthermore who has rubbed shoulders with Mao Tse Tung and can call Pol Pot - perhaps the greatest genocidal mass-murderer in recent history - a close friend, it seems incredible that a person of such international power, influence and indeed notoriety can remain virtually unknown to the general public, so it’s clear at least that director Barbet Schroeder has found a worthy subject for his documentary.
Even after watched Terror’s Advocate however, the exact nature of Vergès influence, his actions and his credo remain vague and scarcely defined. Part of the reason for that is undoubtedly down to the necessarily murky waters, shadowy backgrounds and dubious alliances that such influential people must inevitably maintain in secrecy - and with Vergès’s profession and clientele he perhaps has more to keep hidden than most - but Schroeder’s film, despite being based principally around interviews with the man himself, his statements supported and refuted by other key players in the arena of international terrorism, never seems to get to get to the heart of Vergès either as a person or as a lawyer.
The chronology of Vergès rise to notoriety is however clearly laid out from his beginnings as a young French lawyer not only being foolhardy enough to take on the unenviable position of defending Algerian FLN terrorists in public trials, but causing outrage by questioning the right of the French colonial powers to try them. It’s key to the understanding of where Jacques Vergès is coming from that this point is clearly explained, and Schroeder’s film achieves this admirably. Defending the seemingly indefensible, it’s perhaps unsurprising to discover that Vergès does so in the name of justice. In his defence of the underdog, in defence of their actions of murder, torture and genocide, Vergès shows that the matter is not as black and white as it seems. In a manoeuvre that has come to be called the "rupture defence", Vergès would call into question the fundamental right of the individual to fight by whatever means necessary against a corrupt system, particularly a colonial power, that is itself guilty of similar crimes. What right does a state that itself carries out murder and atrocities have to prosecute an individual who opposes it?
Making this key principle clear is perhaps the biggest achievement in Schroeder’s film. Even if one can’t sympathise with such a position as being morally defensible, in principle, or at least in the context of a legal technicality since everyone is entitled to a defence, it certainly has validity. The same charge could be put today to the US and UK governments for the war crimes currently being committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and indeed when questioned whether hypothetically, he would have defended Hitler, Vergès replies flippantly but probably quite sincerely that he would even defend Bush, as long as he pleaded guilty. The question does however become more complicated when applied across the board to killers, terrorists and psychopaths that one suspects have less than noble or selfless political aspirations, even if it could be argued that it is "the system" that gives birth to them, and the film gets into very murky territory after the 8-year disappearance of Vergès between 1970 and 1978. Quite where Vergès went underground or what he did in those missing years is unknown, but there is no doubt that if he didn’t actually dirty his own hands through various cloak-and-dagger activities, it at least saw a consolidation of the lawyer’s strategy and the forming of important alliances in a period that coincided with the rise of Islamic terrorism onto an international arena.
This is a very complicated area and it’s the part in Schroeder’s documentary where it is easy to get lost, or at least lose interest. It’s clear that Schroeder himself has problems with Vergès’s stance and he does his best to demolish it in the second half of the film (as the opening titles indicate the filmmaker makes no claims of impartiality in his presentation of his subject). Actually, he doesn’t do his best. He roots around old Stasi files whose authenticity can’t be verified and relies on eccentric phone-calls from crazed lunatic Carlos the Jackal in his prison cell. Amidst many examples of terrorist activity by various groups and factions allegedly supported by Vergès whose motives aren’t always clear, Schroeder focuses mainly, perhaps because it is of interest from a French perspective, on the case of Carlos and his girlfriend Magdalena Kopp.
What the film lacks is any coverage of Vergès’s cases, his speeches, his pronouncements the reactions of the authorities to his behaviour and stance. We know what the man stands for but have very little indication and scant examples given of the man as an intellectual and as a lawyer. The case of Klaus Barbie for example and the prestigious showcase trial in Lyon where Vergès sets himself up in lone opposition to a prosecution team of 39 of France’s most eminent lawyers slips by with no coverage of the position maintained by Vergès, how it was presented or how it was received. Perhaps it’s regarded as a matter of public record, or perhaps much goes on behind closed doors in such a case, but one would like the documentary to delve deeper into the underlying politics of the trial, and that isn’t done. Rather, the film seems to focus on personal relationships that were formed, notably Vergès’s association with Swiss Nazi François Genoud, and suggestions that with his marriage to the figurehead of the Algerian Liberation movement Djamila Bouhired and his later courting of Magdalena Kopp that Vergès is motivated as much by an attraction to strong, dangerous women as he is in a belief in any cause.
While it is certainly worthwhile to try to humanise the mysterious figure of Jacques Vergès, and there may indeed be some truth in the assertion, it does seem a little reductive and disproportionate to the attention given to his actual achievements as a lawyer. Since Vergès gives absolutely nothing away, sitting throughout the film with his cigar and smiling enigmatically at the interviewer, perhaps there is little option but to seek those answers that are more readily verifiable, but it seems evasive of the pertinent point of making a documentary about the man in the first place, failing either to objectively give a balanced character-study view of the man or even deliver an effective polemic against his methods and notoriety.
Terror’s Advocate is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The film is presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.85:1. Filmed for the most part on Hi-Definition cameras, the subject being largely made up of static figures being interviewed, there are no great demands made on the transfer and the image quality is therefore strong and hard to fault. Documentary footage of variable quality is used and this looks only as good as the source materials allow, but there is nothing here that causes any issues.
The DVD comes with not only a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix, but also a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. This might seem excessive for a documentary that consists largely of talking heads, but as Schroeder confirms in the extra features, he approached the documentary the same way that he would approach a fictional film and the soundtrack score is used to underline passages. Both soundtracks are consequently very clear, but the surround mix gives the film a more subtle touch.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. Fixed at the bottom of the screen, they do struggle occasionally to cover both captions, translations of headlines and simultaneous overlapping dialogue. On the whole though they are fine and too not difficult to keep up with.
The main extra feature is the Interview with Barbet Schroeder and it’s a good one, well up to the usual excellent Artificial Eye standards. As well as covering aspects of the filming, his approach to documentary and the inevitable difficulty in getting interviews with figures like Carlos the Jackal, Schroeder is also open about his own views on Vergès. He sees him as brave, but "a troublemaker" who is attempting to repeat the success of his youth but inevitably failing and becoming a caricature of himself. He believes that the film has been damaging to Vergès’s reputation, but the cocksure response to the film from the lawyer himself can also be valid. Schroeder makes reference to speeches by Vergès included on the DVD, but he’s probably talking about the French DVD, as they are not present here. There omission is unfortunate, since the film is lacking in this respect, but perhaps inevitable considering that any documents included are probably copyrighted and would need translated. The film’s Trailer (1:32) is included, giving a concise view of the film’s subject, there is a short Director’s Filmography with a brief biography of Schroeder’s career. Other Artificial Eye trailers are included.
If it achieves nothing else, Terror’s Advocate at least introduces the viewer to a fascinating, shadowy and charismatic figure of a certain notoriety and influence in the world of terrorism, counter-terrorism and espionage (and one suspects that it is indeed the shadowy figures in the background who really do call the shots in these areas). Perhaps inevitably, it fails however to get behind the personality of Jacques Vergès and what it is that really motivates him. This is to some extent understandable and excusable in a very private if not secretive individual, but crucially the film pertinently fails to establish the character of the lawyer’s ability, the extent of his beliefs or present a convincing case for the nature of the relationships and alliances he has made with important figures in worldwide terrorism and revolution. There’s the suspicion that Schroeder indeed didn’t want to glamorise the achievements of Jacques Vergès in Terror’s Advocate, but he doesn’t manage to demolish his reputation either.