(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2007)
Barbet Schroeder’s documentary Terror’s Advocate is a rather frustrating movie, at least before you’ve thought about it for a while. It’s centered on Jacques Verges, the infamous French attorney, now in his 80’s, who at various times represented or advised Slobodan Milosevic, Pol Pot, Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal, and dozens of unsavoury others. In the film’s signature line, he says he’d even represent George W Bush, as long as Bush pleaded guilty. Most of us will agree that even the lowest of the low expect a fair trial, but we’re all defined by the choices we make and the company we keep, and Verges’ compulsive affinity for obvious murderers and despots seems to indicate bottomless personal cynicism or moral corruption. The man himself though seems serene, reasonable (if smug), largely free of any ideological baggage (or at least keeping it well to himself).
The main exception to that is at the film’s very beginning: Verges calmly explains, as the camera takes us over layers of excavated bones from the mass graves, how the death tolls in the Khmer Rouge genocide have always been overstated. It seems that we’re headed for classic Holocaust denier type territory. But the film never returns to that vein again, leaving his attitudes conspicuously under examined. For example, the treatment of the Barbie trial is mostly limited to an expose of where the money for the defense came from, and then to Verges’ obvious relish at having been a lone defense lawyer going up against 39 prosecutors. His perspective on his client is never probed, and the film never even tells us what the verdict was - a strange omission even if most of us can either remember or guess (answer: life imprisonment). At the end there’s a long series of photos of other Verges clients or connections not previously addressed in the film, many of who look like the basis for potentially more intriguing material than what we’ve actually been watching.
As a narrative, the film is most satisfying early on, setting out how the young Verges got involved with defending Algerian freedom fighters during the final stretch of French colonialism. Most of us will see this as a just cause, and so Verges at this point seems brave and principled – even better, he fell in love with and married the beautiful freedom fighter he was defending. Later on he got drawn into Palestinian issues, which may have led to an association with diehard (and well financed) Nazi sympathizers. For most of the 70’s, he simply disappeared, his whereabouts unknown (most of his acquaintances assumed he was in Cambodia, but the Pol Pot regime denies it). The film’s latter section focuses in most detail on his association with Carlos and other pioneering international terrorists (and another love interest, perhaps platonic though), including some of the first wave of radical Islamists.
Origins Of Terrorism
At times, Verges almost seems lost in an endless network of international intrigue, surveillance, allegations and connections, and Schroeder often fills his frame to bursting with captions and imbedded images (certainly the subtitler couldn’t always think of a way to keep up). The director set out his angle in a recent interview: “I approached the movie as I would have approached a work of fiction. The human material, the characters are so rich, that I had a tendency to approach it like that and not as a documentary piece. It ended up being a movie about the origin of modern terrorism, the history of it.” And so whatever Verges’ personal complicity, he’s primarily a cog in the wheel, maybe even a quasi Forrest Gump who happened to bear witness to one of the defining movements of our times.
It’s possible to be almost nostalgic about a time when the origins of terrorism lay closer to home. The 60’s and 70’s were often turbulent and traumatic, and great malaise set in toward the end of that period - no one would wish to turn the clock back to it – but it now looks like a necessary self-correction (self-flagellation, if you like), which facilitated the booms and renewals of the last two decades. The trouble is of course that we’ve collectively become horribly complacent, to the very brink of implosion. The Iraqi war – a criminally under-motivated endeavour, sold as a grand project of freedom and yet mostly implemented like a second-rate break-in – is a decadence that couldn’t have existed in previous decades (the horror exceeds Vietnam at least in conception if not in (American) body count, not least because Vietnam didn’t have Vietnam to learn from).
Schroeder certainly capitalizes on this historical flavour – his film feels ripe and engaged, radiating relative gusto where (for example) Charles Ferguson’s No End In Sight, an excellent recent dissection of the Iraq mess, must necessarily traffic in desolation. It’s a great subject for this most versatile of directors. Schroeder produced Eric Rohmer’s early films, and even plays the lead role in one of them; later he was associated with Jacques Rivette (and appears in Rivette’s most recent film too). He made quirky documentaries about Idi Amin and talking gorillas, and some provocative fictions, before getting into English language movies with the Mickey Rourke Barfly. He scored an Oscar nomination for Reversal Of Fortune, and then became a mainstream Hollywood director, turning in efficient but mostly boring action vehicles for David Caruso and Sandra Bullock.
I don’t think Schroeder has ever been as accomplished as the French masters he’s worked with, but at this point he represents a unique melting pot of sensibilities and experiences, and Terror’s Advocate might be an almost ideal vehicle for him. If one were overanalyzing the director in terms of his constituent strands, you might almost say that he finds something of the restraint of a Rohmer within this most frenetic of subjects. Instead of walking out of there brandishing easy (but, in terms of the world we inhabit now, largely pointless) condemnations of Verges, we come out with a nagging emptiness. How we choose to fill that is, of course, up to us.
Terror’s Advocate eventually seems more relevant to our current climate, and to the war in Iraq in particular, than Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which is actually about the war. The movie’s conceit is that everything it contains is being intermediated –through the video camera of a young soldier, or that of a French documentary crew, through surveillance cameras, or webcams, or so forth. “Isn’t it ironic,” said De Palma recently, “that in order to tell the truth about Iraq, you have to create the truth?” (So much for documentary.) And what is this truth as the film presents it? It’s the cold-blooded, premeditated rape and murder by two soldiers of a young girl and her family, apparently based on a real incident, and yet surely hardly representative of the individual contribution of most soldiers (and not at all of the broader issues, except in the most crassly symbolic sense). It’s all well intentioned I suppose, and there are some effective moments, but it’s mostly stilted and juvenile and just not very useful.