With Terror's Advocate, director Barbet Schroeder has done more than simply profile French attorney and international provocateur Jacques Vergès. He has created a startling and compelling history of modern terrorism.
Vergès has been intimately involved with terrorists of various political persuasions for more than 50 years, representing notorious clients from bombers and hijackers to deposed dictators accused of mass murder. Schroeder makes a convincing case that Vergès functions not only as a legal advocate, but is an active supporter of his clients, regularly crossing ethical boundaries to aid and abet those he so vigorously represents.
Not that the elusive Vergès would ever directly explain his extracurricular activities. (The closest he comes is an abstract statement that crossing the "white line" leaves lawyers "vulnerable.") Throughout this documentary, Vergès coolly addresses the camera — never allowing the discourse to get too heated — with an all-knowing, cryptic smile that says more than he's willing to articulate. Schroeder may never crack this tough nut, but he methodically puts Vergès in his place.
Schroeder begins with a statement that's the cinematic equivalent of declaring his subject a hostile witness: "This film is the director's point of view on Jacques Vergès, which may differ from the opinions of people interviewed in it." Then he jumps right into the mutual admiration between Vergès and Saloth Sar, who met as anti-colonialist student activists in postwar Paris. Vergès casually deflects responsibility from his old friend, who, you'll recall, became Pol Pot, Brother No. 1 of the Khmer Rouge, ruler of Cambodia and architect of its genocide.
It's a pointed introduction to Vergès, because as Schroeder chronicles his early history (World War II vet becomes an activist lawyer and aids a nation to independence), he develops the sheen of heroism. For Vergès, going to Algeria to defend Djamila Bouhired — he a member of the National Liberation Front who planted a bomb in a café — made perfect sense. A newly christened, ambitious attorney ready to make his mark, Vergès is also a child of colonialism (a Vietnamese mother and a father from Réunion Island, located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and still under French rule).
The Algerian conflict is a major portion of this lengthy, insightful documentary. It's not only the formative experience for Vergès, whose impassioned defense of Djamila (his future wife) transformed her into the face of resistance and focused international public opinion on Algeria, but it also marks the beginning of terrorism as we know it today. Current historians are looking to Algeria for lessons to apply to the Iraq War, and Terror's Advocate serves as an engrossing primer on the lesser-known forces that irrevocably shaped the second half of the 20th century.
Vergès is at his most forthcoming discussing Algeria, especially his courtroom tactics and the "rupture defense" that challenged the authority of the French court. But as his life seems set on a certain path, with marriage and children, a conversion to Islam and immersion in a newly independent Algeria, and more high-profile trials defending members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Vergès goes missing in 1970 and is presumed dead until he resurfaces in Paris eight years later.
Speculation is rampant on how Vergès spent those underground years, and Schroeder expounds on several conspiracy theories. But what this disappearing act illustrates is just how little Vergès is willing to play by anyone else's rules, relying instead on a personal, idiosyncratic moral compass to guide him.
Barbet Schroeder follows Jacques Vergès on his slippery slope, and he documents that path with extensive interviews with friends, journalists, historians and colleagues. But it's the candid recollections of those who came to define the term terrorist (including Anis Naccache, Hans Joachim Klein and Carlos "the Jackal") that make this film so chilling and historically important.
As in previous documentaries (particularly Général Idi Amin Dada), Schroeder uses his narrative film experience (Reversal of Fortune, Before and After) to give Terror's Advocate the tension and immediacy of a twist-filled political thriller.
Even with the head-spinning amount of information it provides, Terror's Advocate leaves many questions unanswered about Jacques Vergès: an enigma who thrives in the spotlight, a revolutionary who loves the French high life, a terrorist who uses words instead of bombs. —Serena Donadoni
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10; and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 11-12. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.