Terror’s Advocate: a trial in itself

Barbet Schroeder’s documentary about the rogue French lawyer Jacques Vergès is a confusing study of a man with questionable principles.

Nathalie Rothschild

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It is often the sign of a good documentary if the director leaves the audience to consider new questions, rather than simply providing a set of answers.

Yes, film is a medium that lends itself well to polemics and propaganda, and there is no reason why filmmakers should necessarily shy away from making ‘biased’ documentaries. But sometimes a film will raise a multitude of complex questions in relation to a single subject without telling us exactly what we ought to think at the end of it. This is often a sign that the director trusts viewers to engage with the film, without being nervous about what we will do after leaving the cinema – like vote for the wrong politicians or eat the wrong food.

Barbet Schroeder’s documentary, Terror’s Advocate, which is about the controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès, certainly doesn’t give any answers. Unfortunately, that is only because it is a confusing, rambling film.

Vergès is notorious for defending the crème de la crème of terrorists and tyrants. His clients have included Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, also known as the Butcher of Lyon; Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known as Carlos the Jackal; and the Holocaust denier, Roger Garaudy. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Vergès was asked to represent Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein, and he later offered to act for Saddam, too.

The film starts off with Vergès’ ‘Cambodian connection’. There is a glowing endorsement of Vergès by Pol Pot and images of the lawyer fraternising with Khmer Rouges brothers, interspersed with an interview in Vergès’ office in which he says that technically there was no genocide in Cambodia (with a quick cut to images showing piles of human remains). We don’t learn more of Vergès’ involvement in Cambodia’s genocide tribunal or about his and Pol Pot’s days as members of the Association for Colonial Students in Paris. Instead, it seems this sequence of the film is there as a message from the director: ‘This man is a genocide denier, and I am aware of it.’

What follows is a potted history of Vergès’ career and an even bittier history of international terrorism and post-colonial regimes. Schroeder is unable to shed much light on either Vergès’ life or on world history. Despite a line of eloquent interviewees, great archive footage and skilful camera work, the wealth of material has been badly put together. When images of the many individuals Vergès has defended and associated with, but who are not mentioned in the film itself, appear alongside the final credits, it becomes clear that Schroeder has only dealt with a small part of Vergès’ 83-year life. And it is not clear why.

Vergès is a grateful interviewee, enjoying his chance to pose as the defender of the demonised and of anti-colonialist struggles, who has always, in his own mind, pursued justice and a universal application of the law; he continually sucks on a huge cigar and smiles slyly. He is an impressive figure, and for the first part of the film he comes off as quite the political hero. Born in Thailand in 1925 to a French diplomat and a Vietnamese mother and brought up on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, Vergès later fought in the French Resistance and was active in the anti-colonialist movement. ‘For me’, he explains in the film, ‘France was Montaigne, Diderot, the Revolution, and it was intolerable to me that that could disappear’.

But Vergès is no blinkered patriot – he later defended members of the Algerian independence movement, including Djamila Bouhired, who was arrested for planting bombs in cafés and who became a symbol of the Algerian struggle. Vergès later married Bouhired and they had two children together.

In 1970, Vergès mysteriously disappeared for eight years. There are various theories about where he went. Some believe he was hiding in Cuba; others speculate that he sought refuge in the secret ANC training camps in South Africa. Perhaps he went back to Réunion where his twin brother is still living. Maybe he was hanging out with Pol Pot in Cambodia or was arrested while acting as a Chinese agent. Vergès himself skirts around the subject and so Schroeder relies on the other interviewees to fill in the gaps.

It is during this sequence of the film that things just get confusing. It seems impossible to find out where Vergès was during most of the 1970s but the various guesses, unsubstantiated rumours and contradictory testimonials give the film an air of conspiracy theory rather than intriguing mystery.

Vergès is presented by many interviewees as a staunch defender of the oppressed, enraged by his own early experiences of discrimination and humiliation. But always identifying with victims or protecting, on principle, those who are shunned by the majority is no noble cause. This status as outcasts, it seems, is the lowest common denominator that ties together all of Vergès’ clients and political compatriots, from the Algerian National Liberation Front to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, from Red Army Faction and the Baader–Meinhof Gang to the Khmer Rouge (international pariahs).

Speaking of the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987, Vergès says he cannot stand to see a man being humiliated (though the film notes it was François Genoud, a Swiss Nazi who financed Palestinian terrorism, who invited Vergès to represent Barbie). He certainly has a point when he says that this was a showtrial. The court was set up in the town hall in Lyon with space for 700 spectators and members of the press. With a prosecution team of 40 lawyers on one side and Vergès on the other, the then 73-year-old Barbie was found guilty of the 341 separate charges brought against him.

Vergès, however, saw this as an opportunity to ‘put France on trial’, to highlight its historical double standards and various crimes against humanity. Not only did Vergès take advantage of Barbie’s fate himself, then, but he also uses the courtroom as a space to rewrite history in the name of the victims he sympathises with; in effect, Vergès creates his own showtrials.

Vergès nickname is ‘Devil’s Advocate’ and it certainly seems apt. In the film, he says that he is often asked whether he would defend Hitler. His answer is ‘I would even defend Bush – but only if he would agree to plead guilty.’ Now that is a man with a skewed sense of history.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Watch the trailer for Terror’s Advocate:

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