Monday, October 15, 2007

Terror's Advocate.

This weekend I saw Terror's Advocate, Barbet Schroeder's new documentary on Jacques Vergès (pictured above), a French lawyer who won fame in the 1950s by defending Algerian rebels and has since carved out a niche for himself as a counselor to the notorious. In Terror's Advocate, Schroeder deftly mixes interviews with Vergès and various associates, foes and former clients (including convicted terrorist Carlos the Jackal, who speaks by phone from prison) with archival footage and investigative reporting in an effort to understand how an attorney who started his career as an ideologically-driven anti-colonialist became a defender of Nazi war criminals and former dictators and an apologist for the Khmer Rouge.

As a number of critics have observed, Terror's Advocate has some things in common with two of Schroeder's earlier films - the 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada and 1990's Reversal of Fortune. As was the case in General Idi Amin Dada, Schroeder made Terror's Advocate with the cooperation of a subject who seems blithely unaware of how badly he comes across on film despite his personal charm and apparent sense of humor. As presented by Schroeder, Vergès has something in common with two of the principal protagonists in Reversal of Fortune. Like Claus von Bülow, the socialite accused of attempting to kill his wife with an overdose of insulin, Vergès appears to knows more than he's willing to say. Like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who masterminded von Bülow's successful appeal of his conviction for attempted murder, Vergès comes across as a lawyer who has allowed a commitment to an abstract principle to bring him into league with an assortment of disreputable characters. On another level, there's also a plausible parallel between Schroeder's depiction of Vergès and the portrait of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in Errol Morris' The Fog of War. Like McNamara, Vergès is an elderly man who offers some frank admissions about his life in the public eye while indicating that there are clear limits to what he is willing to reveal about himself.

Pitched by its director as a sort of history of global terrorism, Terror's Advocate is really a character study of a man who evidently evolved from a youthful idealist to a cynical opportunist without voicing any apparent regrets. The son of a Vietnamese mother and a father from the French overseas territory of Réunion, Jacques Vergès volunteered for the Free French Forces as a seventeen-year-old because he believed that "France was Montaigne, Diderot, the Revolution, and it was intolerable to me that that could disappear." Later on, Vergès claims, this same vision of France - combined with a lifelong hatred of colonialism - led him to take on the case of Djamila Bouhired, an Algerian independence fighter whose 1957 terrorism trial became a cause célèbre and brought fame to Vergès as well as Bouhired. The way Vergès talks about this and other cases suggests that he was motivated as much by a thirst for adventure and romance as by his political convictions; it's no coincidence that Bouhired later became Vergès' wife, or that the lawyer tried to woo a later client, convicted terrorist Magdalena Kopp, by bringing her gifts during her incarceration. (Kopp appreciated Vergès' attention enough to knit him a sweater behind bars, but after her release she rebuffed him and took up with Carlos the Jackal.)

In the end, Jacques Vergès' attraction to dangerous people seems to have guided his actions and choices much more consistently than any sense of political commitment. Over time, Vergès' clients shifted from Algerian rebels and Palestinian hijackers to a motley group of Nazis, Islamic fundamentalists, mercenaries and various others whose belief in the values of "Montaigne, Diderot, [and] the Revolution" seems extraordinarily unlikely. Interviewed by Schroeder, Vergès clearly delights in the excitement of it all and appears oblivious to his own bad reputation. He refuses to respond to allegations that he may have been a little too friendly with some of his more infamous clients (like Carlos the Jackal and Pol Pot, both of whom speak of Vergès as a longtime friend in interviews for Terror's Advocate). At the end of the day, Vergès claims to uphold the responsibilities of a conscientious attorney: he emphasizes his duty of zealous advocacy and he calls attention to the sacrosanct quality of attorney-client privilege..

Terror's Advocate is a disturbing, harrowing and ultimately very powerful film. On one level, it raises hard questions about the role that attorneys play in societies governed by law. On a much deeper level, though, it considers the complex blend of motives that lead men like Jacques Vergès to act as they do. Ultimately, Terror's Advocate suggests that the line between courage and cowardice isn't always as clear as we might wish. AMDG.


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