Jacques Vergès could or should have been a terrorist… but he couldn’t have been the kind of fighter who sleeps in cellars or eats canned food. He’s too fond of the good things in life.
— Lionel Duroy
A trial is magical and full of surprises.
— Jacques Vergès
In December 2003, Jacques Vergès offered to defend Saddam Hussein. He had already been asked to defend Tariq Aziz, and frankly, had built a reputation defending unsavory characters, left and right-wing terrorists, war criminals and militants, serial killers (Charles Sobhraj, a.k.a. “The Serpent”), as well as celebrity villains, from Slobodan Miloševic and Idriss Déby to Carlos “The Jackal” and Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. Though Vergès never did take up Saddam’s case, the showboaty proposal again landed him in front of cameras, a position that had become something of a habit over his 50-year career.
For Barbet Schroeder’s documentary Terror’s Advocate, Vergès agreed again to perform, this time over the course of multiple interviews, assembled along with analyses and memories from people he’s defended, eluded, and/or admired. Though opinions as to Vergès’ moral thinking vary throughout the film, he remains pretty much as “mysterious” as he wants to be, not so much explaining his decisions to take cases as indicting the legal, political, and discursive systems that he came to manipulate so well.
No one can accuse him of shirking confrontations. Speaking of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, a man with whom he is rumored to share a close friendship, Vergès muses, “Some say the genocide was wholly intentional. I say it wasn’t. There were deaths and famine, but it was unintentional. There was reprehensible repression and torture, but not on millions of people.” Schroeder’s film here includes the sort of evidence you might expect in answer to such a claim, images of bodies, skulls, and mass graves. Vergès continues, his next point demonstrating his use of sensational cases to draw attention to injustices and abuses by states as well as individuals: “The U.S. bombardments weren’t considered or the famine from the U.S. embargo and blockade. It all became a package and all was blamed on the Khmers Rouges.”
As world systems go, the American part in what went wrong in Southeast Asia is both infamous and ambiguous. Vergès insists on accountability (he’s said that he took Barbie’s case to make public France’s part in the Holocaust). A devout anti-colonialist, he was born in 1925, in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, to a French father and Vietnamese mother. With such a background, he felt perpetually displaced. Journalist Lionel Duroy observes, “I think he was born at war, born angry. Once you’ve been colonized, the only attitude for a man or a woman is to be against things… I think he became a lawyer by accident… If you took up arms, you would be just another soldier. Being an angry lawyer, in a colonized country, you have the best venue there is.”
That’s not to say Vergès didn’t spend time in the military, fighting the Nazis in the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle (“Fighting in a war,” says Vergès, “seemed risky to me, but an adventure worth having”). At the Université de Paris, he became president of the Association for Colonial Students (AEC) and befriended Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot) and became a communist. Once he earned his law degree in 1955, Vergès began defending Algerian guerrillas accused of terrorist acts. As the film narrates these cases, the focus turns away from Vergès specifically, contextualizing his work (and his apparent “fetishization” of the guerrillas) and terrorism, which was only then developing into a phenomenon with a name, a protocol, and pattern.
If Terror’s Advocate doesn’t precisely interrogate the rise of terrorism, it does look at its romance and consider its effectiveness. As Vergès was drawn to such dedication to a cause and resistance to iniquitous structures, he spoke against racism and colonialism, but has also been accused of anti-Semitism. He describes his attraction to his clients and their causes as a function of his own background, feeling an outsider in France and affiliated with an oppressed population (“I sympathized with the Algerian struggle, but didn’t condemn their violence”). His defense of Muslim Djamila Bouhired, who planted the “Milk Bar” bomb during the Battle of Algiers in 1956, killing 11 people and wounding five, led to a literal romance: on hearing about her torture by captors, he says he became “obsessed with this case,” and eventually married her. (According to Duroy, “He fell in love with a young woman who shattered him because she’d just been tortured by French officers, and she was totally dignified”; or, as Vergès puts it, “Djamila now appeared as the embodiment of Algeria,” or, as headlines had it, “the Joan of Arc of Algeria.”)
Vergès also learned during this trial how to work the media, how to provoke “incidents” in the courtroom and in the streets, to encourage support from demonstrators and organizations. His attraction to such causes led to his work with Palestinians on trial (by way of explanation, former Algerian Resistance leader Béchir Boumaza says, “A Palestinian is yesterday’s Algerian, yes? To us, Israel in the beginning is basically a colonial phenomenon”). Appointed to defend the Palestinians arrested in Athens for hijacking the El Al plane 1965, he also took up the next El Al case, in Zurich. (He became, the film notes, “persona non grata” in Israel.)
But as his reputation as an advocate for terrorism was growing, Vergès changed course again, first working petty cases in Algeria, where he was living with Djamila and their children, and eventually disappearing, quite literally, between 1970 and 1978. The documentary goes over the several theories as to where he was during “the missing years” — he was in Cambodia or Thailand with Pol Pot, he was a secret agent for East Germany or France, with a report by “famed private eye” David Fechheimer, hired by Schroeder — but leaves the mystery largely intact (neither does it explore his family’s reaction to his desertion). Vergès’ reemergence was splashy, as he was affiliated with Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos, via Swiss Nazi Francois Genoud and the notorious Waddi Haddad, co-leader, with Georges Habbache, of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).
A series of historians, journalists, and philosophers piece together this segment of Vergès’ life, his defense of Anis Naccache, who directed the OPEC hostage operation in Vienna in 1975 (the film includes an interview with Hans-Joachim Klein, a participant in this operation, who renounced terrorism in 1978 and tells his own story in more detail in Protagonist). Schroeder’s movie offers the added romance of Vergès’ romance with Carlos’ girlfriend, Magdalena Kopp (in 1982, the lawyer defended her and Bruno Bréguet in Paris, where they were arrested with a car full of explosives). Though the extent of their relationship is left tantalizingly unknown, Carlos says in a phone conversation that he’s sure the lawyer “wanted to screw her.” As the film ponders a photo of Carlos, with Magdalena and their child, he winks, a digital trick that suggests a range of possibilities, not least being Carlos’ cunning, deceit, and cynicism.
The wink, surely striking, also alludes to the documentary’s general attitude toward Vergès, positing him as a trickster and a showman, a vain self-promoter aware of larger stakes, the inherent imperfection of the legal system and the possibilities of scandal and exposure. His famous “defense de rupture,” a strategy by which he challenges the court’s moral authority to judge his client, is at once provocative and frustrating: as a kind of fallback for defending self-confessed or ever-defiant monsters like Barbie, it’s not precisely convincing, yet it can help to reveal circumstances that give rise to extreme actions, abuses by the state that most often remain hidden.
Vergès’ own commitments remain indeterminate. Asked whether he might be considered a terrorist himself, his longtime friend, political cartoonist Siné, says, “He likes fine cuisine and reading books. He’s an egghead. I don’t see him as a karate man. But pressing a button to blow things up, if that’s all it takes, would be no problem to him.” The closest Vergès comes to a statement of his philosophy comes at film’s end. In accepting a case, he says, “this trust compels us to fight tooth and nail to defend him, and use every legal device there is. But we must never cross that white line, or else… we become vulnerable.” As peculiar and fascinating as its subject, Terror’s Advocate doesn’t presume to tell truth, though it pursues its many forms with a remarkable integrity.