Terror's Advocate

(L'Avocat De La Terror)
French Documentary

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (Certain Regard)–A highlight of the Certain Regard series, Barbet Schroeder's “Terror's Advocate” centers on Jacques Verges, the enigmatic yet notorious French attorney who has defended political terrorists and war criminals, whom some would consider terrorists and others freedom fighters. For more than a half-century, he has known or litigated on behalf of the world's most controversial figures, including Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Magdalena Kopp, Roger Garaudy, and Klaus Barbie, to name a few.

How do you make a case for a whole film about a man who's despised by many, and whose life has interfaced in personal and professional ways with dictators, despots, and serial killers of the first kind. (Don't be surprised if you feel a certain chill in your bones after watching this sobering docu).

Schroeder, a director with uneven track record of Hollywood feature films, the best of which is still the 1990 Oscar-winning “Reversal of Fortune,” is the right man for his subject. Schroeder has made several significant non-fictional works about other “human monsters,” such as Idi Amin, Claus Von Bulow, and Charles Bukowski. (See Below).

All of these docus, including the new one, could be grouped under the category of “devil's advocates.” (Coming to think about it, it may be interesting to release all of these detailed political portraits in one packaged DVD).

Without the cooperation of Verges (now around 82), who consented to being interviewed, “Terror's Advocate” would be a lesser docu. Yet even when his subject is evasive, Schroeder is shrewd enough to manipulate him, and when that strategy doesn't work, the helmer uses other ways to present a rather comprehensive portrait of a man who has basked in controversy and fame for his entire career.

Born in Thailand in 1925 to a Vietnamese mother and Reunion Island father, Verges grew up in culturally and racially diverse contexts, ingraining in him anti-colonial and counter-cultural tendencies that would serve him well later on in his life.

Still an idealist-patriot in the 1940s, Verges supported Charles De Gaulle when he enlisted into the army during WWII, though it's not clear when exactly he developed his pronounced anti-colonial policies, and then decided to put them into practice through his legal-political work.

As a young advocate, Verges was asked to represent an Algerian woman, Djamila Bouhired, who became a symbol of her country's oppression and quest for freedom. Bouhired planted bombs in cars and coffee shops, for which she was arrested and tormented in 1957. Terrorist acts by Bouhired and others are considered by historians a turning point in the relationship between France and Algiers, which gained independence after years of bloodshed and fighting.

Against all odds, though Bouhired was sentenced to death, Verges managed to get her a pardon. The story gets better and more bizarre that that, when Verges married Bouhired, a marriage that terminated Verges' career-at least for a while. During his disappearance, Verges was rumored to be in Cambodia, where Pol Pot was a former student-amigo, China, and even visiting Palestinian refugee camps.

Upon return to France, Verges defended terrorists like Magdalena Kopp, the German terrorist, Anis Naccache, Carlos the Jackal, Klaus Barbie, the Nazi war criminal, and Roger Garaudy, a man who denied the very existence of the Holocaust and concentration camps.

Repeating patterns of his past, Verges can't maintain complete professional or emotional detachment from his clients, and so we learn that he fell in love with Magdalena Kopp, who was then married to Carlos the Jackal. Kopp, however, didn't return affection, once Verges succeeded in freeing her from prison.

Strong on facts, interview footage, and some speculations, “Terror's Advocate” is an old-fashioned work in the sense that it mostly consists of talking heads. But what comes out of these mouths and heads is always fascinating and intriguing. Rather cleverly, most of the material is presented directly, with no narration or title cards, which increases our involvement in the person's saga.

While scholars, historians and experts disagree about Verges' greatest achievementssort of a frightening hit parademost acknowledge the complex and complicated case of Bouhired as a definite highlight.

What remains unexplained is Verges' level of commitment on the one hand and the level of mercenary motives on the otheradmittedly, there was a lot of money to be made out of the growing international “market” of political terrorists.

Also problematic is the lack of a broader context, because as intriguing as the individual cases handled by Verges are, the background offers nothing less than an informal history of global terrorism, a phenom that has beginnings and evolutionary pattern, just like other movements.

As with most docus, overall impact of “Terror's Advocate” depends on what's included and excluded, on those interviewed as well as those that are not, on the selection and omission of particular footage.

Even so, Schroeder has made an intelligent and provocative, even if it's not complete, portrait of an interesting figure. And he has taken time to do so: The work's running time is two hours and sixteen minutes, rather long, but never boring, for non-fiction.

For the record, Verges never breaks down on camera, and doesn't confess to any misconduct. Throughout the interviews, he comes across as a man determined to keep control over his public persona. Occasionally, he seems upset, though he tries not to show any overt emotions. Physically assuming, and not without charm, Verges sports a cigar, and comes across as a sympathetic, even likable man. Whether by choice or not, Verges is largely filmed in offices and courtrooms, rather than in more informal or private settings.

There's madness to Verges' method, to use a metaphor. Time and again, he asserts that he has always defended the indefensible, victims (in his opinion) of the all-too powerful and omnipresent State. Significantly, Verges says that he would defend our own President, George W. Bush, contingent on the fact that Bush admits to his guilt.

Who will see the film “Terror's Advocate” has been playing the global film festival circuit (Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, and others) before getting theatrical release in October by Magnolia, a courageous division that has done marvels with small, non-budget indies and docus.

End Note

Schroeder is known for his narrative features, which includes the acclaimed OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, BARFLY and MAITRESS, but he has long maintained an interest in the documentary form. His nonfiction films GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA and THE CHARLES BUKOWSKI TAPES show that his core interest in moral ambiguity extends beyond the fictional realm.


A Magnolia Pictures presentation of a Wild Bunch/Yalla Films co-production, with participation of Canal Plus and France's Centre National de la Cinematographie.
Produced by Rita Dagher.
Directed by Barbet Schroeder.
Camera: Caroline Champetier.
Editor: Nelly Quettier.
Music: Jorge Arriagada.

Running time: 136 Minutes.