Terror's Advocate (L'Avocat de la terreur)
In the American justice system a person is innocent until proven guilty. A fundamental aspect of this is that person has the right to the best possible defense. To this end the defense attorney’s job is to provide an aggressive, competent defense no matter what his client is charged with. For most people the only exposure to the legal system they have is film and television. There you either have the prosecutor putting away really bad people of the defense lawyer exonerating an innocent man accused of a crime. What is lost in this myopic view of the system is there are real criminals who are truly guilty and even they deserve their representation. Even someone generally considered an inhuman monster like Charles Manson had a lawyer, actually, since in that case there was a bit of attrition, a few lawyers. This system of the accused being provided the best possible defense is fundamental to our system and the tenants are upheld in many international courts. When a person is accused of heinous crimes against humanity they too deserve the best possible defense. The documentary by director Barbet Schroeder, "L’Avocat de la terreur’ or ‘Terror's Advocate’ looks at a man who in his professional capacity as a lawyer takes the most hated and horrible clients imaginable. The man is Jacques Vergès and his clients have been accused of the worse possible acts a human being can be responsible for.
In his career Vergès has defended the likes of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and Roger Garaudy for his public denial of the Holocaust. These are not men popular with the vast majority of humanity. Still, Vergès steps up to defend them using every trick in the lawyer’s playbook. While many may feel that people such as his clients don’t deserver representation in court the fact remains for the system to wok for the best of mankind it must also apply to the worse. Vergès is not apologetic about getting off the people he represents. For him it is his job and he knows that he is the best in his field. Barbet Schroeder has stated that this documentary is filtered through his opinions. This is refreshing for a film maker to be so open about inserting their own views in their work. The only problem here is after watching the piece it is nearly impossible to determine just what that position is. Schroeder leaves so much of the exposition to the interview subjects that it often feels that he is an observer. While most documentaries rely on narration to set the direction and tone of the film Schroeder avoids it nearly entirely. Only history can really decide the role Vergès has played.
As the film opens there is a notice that this film is the director’s point of view and that it may differ from the people being interviewed. The first subject is Khieu Samphan who served under Pol Pot in the infamous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Photos show him hugging Vergès surrounded by the beautiful, lush forest where he resides. They cut to the first of many direct interviews with Vergès. He still defends Samphan stating that the deaths and famine was unintentional, defending a man accused of the most heinous possible crime, genocide. He admits that there was torture and ‘reprehensible repression’ but it was not on the scale of millions as reported. The number of people found in mass graves does not match the reported totals attributed to the regime. He is the consummate lawyer; he looked for loopholes and subtle wordings to attack the charges made. His point is sure there was torture and murder but not as much as the charges say. He blamed many of the deaths on the U.S. bombardments and the famine on America blockades. Vergès is a master of the legal technicality.
One of his first high profile clients were a group of people charged with terrorism in Algiers by the French government. Vergès personally sided with his clients on the matter of liberation and thought of them as freedom fighters not terrorists. The Sétif massacre occurred on May 8, 1945, Armistice Day. Thousands of people protested the continued rule by France and demanded the liberation of Algiers. Vergès would step in and defend those accused of numerous acts of lethal terrorism. Once again he makes it a case of inflated numbers. He is sure no more that 10,000 died while the American consulate records the number as 45,000. The response was to explode a bomb in a café killing many people. It was the perpetrators of that act that Vergès defended claiming there were not terrorists but freedom fighters reclaiming their homeland from foreign rule. One of the defendants was Djamila Bouhired who was sentenced to death, later pardoned and eventually married Vergès. There were charges that she was tortured on her hospital bed to obtain information and a confession. A lot of time is spent on this case. It was one of his first and one that Vergès had the most personal involvement with. There was also many newsreels and clips used to set the stage of what was occurring in the country at this time.
The one fact that comes out of this film is Vergès is an expert at what he does. He is able to attack the facts of the case and dance around semantics until his goal is achieved. To argue that 10,000 deaths is in no way the degree of tragedy as 45,000 is not something that most people would consider a defense. It is like a person accused of murder defending himself by saying it was only one person dead. One of his clients, Abderrahmane Benhamida regretted maiming people but not killing them. This is a world of twisted logic and legal manipulation. Not all of his clients get off, many may add thankfully. Carlos the Jackal, member of the radical Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine was arrested and tried but was found guilty. While Vergès maintains his commitment to defending anti-colonist fighters his involvement in cases that range from former Nazis and others charged with war crimes displays he is ultimately a hired gun willing to defend those willing to pay for his services. He fought against the Nazis when they occupied France but then defended them in court when charged with crimes against humanity.
What is so striking about this film are the people being interviewed. Many of them are living rather well, far better than any of their victims. Vergès is seen sitting in nice locations, occasionally puffing a large cigar with a smile on his face. He talks about his cases to the camera like a grandfather telling the kids about the good old days. For over five decades he has defended people on the worse possible crimes. It is often difficult to pull back your attention and consider the necessity of this aspect of the justice system. When you see people talking so casually about the deaths of tens of thousands of people the result is chilling.
The film is well done. The pacing is quick and to the point. The interviews are inter cut with footage contemporary to the events giving the documentary a feeling of weight.
Schroeder leaves much of the opinions to his audience by letting the participants speak for themselves. Every conceivable person you would want to hear from on these subjects is covered. This is a serious and well presented piece. It will divide the audience on the grounds of whether a person like Vergès plays an important part of the system or if he is just a talented opportunist.
Magnolia Home Entertainment has an extremely diversified catalog of films that they bring to DVD. This is one that needs to be seen by every concerned person out there. It does what a documentary like this should do, it will make you examine and discuss the events in light of the modern world problems.