Terror's Advocate

Terror's Advocate


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The chances are that you don't know who Jacques Vergès is. There have been points in his career when he has been on the front page of the papers, the subject of public outrage, but in between he has kept a low profile, once disappearing completely from public life (and from his family and friends) for 12 years. More famous are some of the people he has defended, from Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie to notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal. He once married at the prompting of Mao Tse Tung, and he was rumoured to have been an associate of Pol Pot. His story is a story of the 20th Century. His history, thanks to seasoned filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, is ours.

Schroeder announces at the start of the film that all he can offer is his own perspective and that his approach may differ from that of some of his interviewees. It's an interesting statement given that, for the most part, his own opinion is very hard to discern. There are just a few curious moments, like the omission - from footage from The Battle Of Algiers - of a young woman noticing a baby just before she plants the bomb that will blow up the café it's sitting in. The Battle Of Algiers is a recreation of real events and the young woman is Djamila Bouhired, chosen for her beauty to work for the revolutionary NLF. When she was caught and imprisoned, the young Vergès became her lawyer. Presenting her as a freedom fighter and winning the support of leading figures from British MPs to Ho Chi Minh, he saved her from death row and promptly married her. It was the beginning of a career which would see him progress from radical politics through dubious financial scandals to a kind of entrenched liberalism on account of which he was willing to defend anyone who needed him - especially those whom nobody else was willing to speak up for.

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Whatever you think of Vergès' politics, he's a fascinating man. Here he talks with wit, humour and sharp intelligence about his experiences, though it's pretty clear that he's saying only what he wants to say. There is no comment on the way he abandoned his loved ones, and his self-righteous pronouncements about his beliefs sit uneasily beside the fact that Carlos the Jackal's children called him 'uncle' even before the man was tried, yet it's hard not to warm to him when he says, for instance, that he would even be willing to defend George Bush, though he'd insist that he plead guilty first. Fortunately, Schroeder balances the film with a considerable amount of material from other sources, much of it more critical and incisive. From ex-girlfriends to surviving members of the Khmer Rouge, they all have interesting contributions to make.

With so much interesting material, you'd think it would be impossible to go wrong. Sadly, such is the weight of Schroeder's film that it very nearly collapses under it. At two hours, many viewers will find it a strain to sit through without a break, especially as it is mostly composed of talking heads. It's a fascinating history lesson but it works rather less well as a film.

Reviewed on: 14 May 2008
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Documentary about a lawyer who defended some of the 20th Century's most notorious figures.
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London 2007

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If you like this, try:

The Battle of Algiers
Carlos The Jackal