TERROR’S ADVOCATE (Avocat de la terreur, L’)(director/writer: Barbet Schroeder; cinematographers: Caroline Champetier/Jean-Luc Perréard; editor: Nelly Quettier; music: Jorge Arriagada; cast: Jacques Vergès (Himself); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Rita Dagher; Magnolia; 2007-in English and French with English subtitles)
“At its best, the documentary shows us an unsavory character answering a bunch of softball questions and whose best logic is to play the Third World race card.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Barbet Schroeder (“Barfly”/”Reversal of Fortune”/”General Idi Amin Dada”) in a slick well-edited manner fills us in on the last fifty odd years of terrorism beginning with the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s through use of talking heads and archival footage. The film uses the suave, gourmet, cigar-smoking, smirking, smug, elusive lawyer Jacques Vergès to chart his contacts with thousands of terrorist clients that include such illustrious sinister figures as Pol Pot (Khmer Rouge leader), Carlos the Jackal (the world’s most wanted terrorist before Osama), Klaus Barbie (‘the Butcher of Lyon’), Slobodan Milosevic (Serbian architect of ethnic cleansing), Roger Garaudy (Swiss Nazi and sponsor of neo-Nazi groups), Magdalena Kopp (girlfriend of Carlos and bomb transporter), Klaus Croissant (East German terrorist), Djamila Bouhired (the real-life female bomber in Algeria’s European quarter who was used as the prototype for the female bombers in the Battle of Algiers), Francis Jeanson (ran a clandestine Algerian National Liberation Front support group in France), Moise Tshombe (the pro-Western leader of Katanga, who assassinated the leftist Congo Prime Minister Lumumba), Anis Naccache (a terrorist the Ayatollah Khomeini orders to assassinate in France Shapour Bakhtiar, the former minister of the Shah), Tariq Aziz (Saddam Hussein government official) and Waddi Haddad (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine member, known for plotting hijackings against Israel).
Vergès was the son of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, who was raised as a Marxist on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion and educated at the Sorbonne. He defended the FLN and even married his Algerian heroine bomber client Djamila before deserting her and his two kids. The anti-colonialist mysteriously vanished for eight years between 1970 and 1978, only to surface in Paris to continue his law practice where he now conveniently uses when he sees fit his commie background and otherwise conveniently discards it.
The title tells us all we need to know about the rogue lawyer. The documentary itself doesn’t. It only lets us know Vergès as the charmer and scoundrel, but leaves off such essentials as to if the cagey Vergès crossed the white line of his profession by getting too involved with his evil clients and the enigmatic figure’s part played in helping the terrorist’s carry out their killing missions. As one French government agent states, we won’t know all the mischief this bad egg was up to until after he dies and people can speak more freely.
The film at over two hours might be dealing with a fascinating historical subject that is coded in secrecy (such as the development of political terrorism in the last century), but brings so much weight and names to the table that it all seemingly collapses from being too hard to register where it’s going with all this information. We’re still left in the dark as the revisionist octogenarian Vergès only tells us what he wants, and leaves his hatreds (rabid anti-Semitism) and self-righteous takes on the bombing of Europeans and torturing of innocents (in Cambodia) as not the fault of the terrorists. For instance, he defends the Nazi psychopath Barbie against the French government on the grounds that the French colonizers did the same in Algiers. He’s a clever but revoltingly arrogant man who seems to take pleasure in tweaking the French for their enlightenment but turns a blind eye to all the murders his sort of people bring to the world. At its best, the documentary shows us an unsavory character answering a bunch of softball questions and whose best logic is to play the Third World race card and try to argue, if you believe, that he’s on the side of the oppressed. We never get even a sniff at what makes him tick, as he comes out as just as an elusive figure as before the film. Some might find this fascinating, a chance to get a crash course in European terrorism. I had mixed feelings, finding it curious in the strained way one looks at a car wreck.
REVIEWED ON 1/23/2009 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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