Barbet Schroeder's documentary about the rogue French lawyer Jacques
Vergès is a confusing study of a man with questionable principles.
by Nathalie Rothschild
29 May 2008
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,
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
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