Terror's Advocate (L'Avocat De La Terreur)



CANNES -- This movie's English title is a misnomer. The French noun "l'avocat" means attorney, while the English word "advocate" means something entirely different. The subject of Barbet Schroeder's in-depth documentary, included in Un Certain Regard sidebar, is Jacques Verges, a French attorney who has made a career defending unpopular individuals, more than a few considered war criminals and terrorists. But as the old saying goes, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. So what Schroeder wants to do is probe the moral complexities in a man capable of defending those who commit heinous crimes.

Verges, who agrees to be interviewed, proves a slippery figure, using his lawyer's guile to sidestep questions and spin facts. But he is a fascinating figure, and "Terror's Advocate" is a fascinating film even if it never completely pins him down. The film should do extremely well in European festivals and art houses although North American viewers' heads may spin as the film leaps through the history of foreign terrorist organizations of the past half-century.

The key thing about Verges is that he was born in Thailand in 1924 or 1925 -- even here he apparently is slippery -- to a mother from Vietnam and a father from Reunion Island, the Indian Ocean island that is part of France. He thus came of age as multiracial in a colonial setting, which as one interviewee notes, means "to be against things," to be anti-establishment, anti-colonialist and anti-government. So even when this seemingly leftist lawyer defends Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, from his perspective he sees the trial as an opportunity to show that French collaborators were no different from evil Barbie.

As a young attorney, he was asked to defend Djamila Bouhired, an Algerian woman who came to symbolize her country's hopes for freedom when she was arrested and tortured by France for planting bombs in cafes in 1957. Eventually, he obtained her pardon after she was sentenced to death. Subsequently, he married her.

But his reward was to be turned into "the husband of Djamila Bouhired" and to be banished to divorce cases. So it was that Verges abruptly disappeared. Last seen at a political meeting in Paris in February 1970, he didn't re-emerge until 1978.

Cultivating an enigmatic image, Verges merely says, "I was among people." He was spotted occasionally by friends in Paris. Theories of his whereabouts otherwise range from Cambodia, where Pol Pot was a friend from student days, to Palestinian camps or even China.

When he returned, he defended terrorists from Magdalena Kopp and Anis Naccache to Carlos the Jackal and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy. When he defended Kopp, German-born terrorist married to Carlos, history repeated itself. He apparently fell in love with his prisoner-client. Only this time she was married and turned her back on him once she was freed.

One can easily get lost amid the endless talking heads of defendants, experts, politicians, historians and attorneys. But what seems clear is that the defining moment in Verges' life came in his aggressive defense of Djamila Bouhired. That young, passionate and committed man was never able to repeat such a pure legal-political act. So he gradually, especially after his eight-year walkabout, drifted from advocate to l'avocat, becoming a man who knows how to legally help a client in the profitable business of terror or who can associate with anti-Semites and quarrel over the body count in the killing fields of Cambodia.

Schroeder eschews narration, letting the interviewees give the time lines and paint the portraits. Thus no one fills in all the blanks or provides a historical context for the many terrorist groups. Schroder also scrupulously avoids passing judgment -- or at least does so only in his selection of what comments or revelations he chooses to include.

A rich symphonic score by Jorge Arriagada helps flavor this visually thin broth of talking heads and a little archival footage.


Magnolia Pictures
A Wild Bunch/Yalla Films co-production with participation of Canal Plus and the Center National de la Cinematographie
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Producer: Rita Dagher
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier, Jean-Luc Perreard
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Running time 137 minutes
No MPAA rating