Terror’s Advocate is a chilling study of one man’s role in the entangled web of twentieth-century terrorism. Told with the dramatic pacing of a political thriller, Barbet Schroeder’s intense and compelling documentary features an astonishing cast of characters, from resistance fighters to terrorists to war criminals, who have been witnesses and participants in decades of political upheaval, all linked by the same lawyer – Jacques Vergès. An undeniably charismatic and passionate advocate for anti-colonialist struggle and the right to a fair trial, he is a hero to some and a villain to others. This film truly exemplifies the cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, a moral ambiguity that resonates throughout the documentary.
Vergès was born in Thailand in 1925 to a French diplomat from Réunion and a Vietnamese mother, and was educated in Paris, where he first met Pol Pot (indeed, the film opens with a disturbing scene of the eloquent, far-left lawyer blaming Cambodia’s genocide on virtually everything but the Khmer Rouge). Vergès began practising law in Algeria in the 1950s, at that time the forefront for nationalist struggles against the ‘imperialist oppressor’. Young and already remarkably egotistic, he took on as his first high-profile client Djamila Bouhired, a member of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), who would go on to become a role model for nationalists and Islamists worldwide – and Vergès’s future wife. Bouhired planted the bomb at the fashionable Milk Bar in 1956, which killed eleven people and wounded five others, an incident famously immortalised in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.
The film goes on to spin out a complex web of connections and intrigue that ties together Algerian nationalists, German anarchists and pro-Palestinian, pro-Iranian terrorists. Vergès became the lawyer for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) after their attacks on the El Al aircraft in the 1960s; the PFLP would go on to form remarkable links with the infamous Carlos the Jackal (something of a terrorist for hire), as well as members of Germany’s Red Army Faction, creating a notorious terror network across Europe and the Middle East, much of whose activities were aided and financed by the notorious anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer François Genoud, one of the more repellent figures to feature in the film.
As his career progresses, Vergès’s principles become corrupted: his clients become more controversial, his connections with terrorists more appalling. He seems more concerned with self-aggrandizement, fame and money than principle. Vergès is perhaps best known in Europe for defending Klaus Barbie, the Nazi SS officer famously known as ‘The Butcher of Lyon’, whose trial was also funded by Genoud. In the interviews with Vergès, mostly filmed in a plush study while he smokes a no doubt expensive cigar, he describes the trial with relish. Exhilarated at the opportunity to take on the establishment in such a high-profile case, he deflected the charges against Barbie by dramatically accusing the French government of carrying out war crimes in Algeria in the 1950s. He lost, and Barbie was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987.
Though Schroeder is somewhat guilty of glamorizing terrorism (he treats the women active in the FLN, as well as Magdalena Kopp, who was once married to Carlos the Jackal, and was arrested in Paris in a car full of explosives in 1982, with kid gloves) there seems little doubt of his feelings for Vergès as the film builds towards its finale. Any kind of empathy with the lawyer and his clients is replaced by a sickening feeling that only intensifies in the final minutes of the film, as the credits roll over photographs of serial killers, Holocaust-deniers, African dictators and war criminals – all clients. Vergès remains a disturbing enigma to the very end in this riveting, must-see history lesson on terror.
Watch the trailer: