Judge Daryl Loomis is currently facing charges of crimes against humanity. He was recently discovered fronting Up All Night, a Slaughter cover band.
"He said he knew me for twenty or thirty years as discreet, polite, and always smiling."—Pol Pot on Jacques Vergés.
A fine line separates the freedom fighter from the terrorist. Which side of that line a violent, politically charged action falls upon depends on whom you ask. To the victims, the attackers are terrorists trying to change their way of life through the fear of death. The attackers, however, full of idealistic motivations, feel that they are fighting oppression, imperialism, or whatever by the only means available to them. No matter the classification, however, there is no doubt that both the original action and the inevitable retaliation maim, kill, and can escalate into crimes against humanity. Eventually, the fighting will end, and the winning party will levy charges against the losers for crimes perceived to have been committed during the struggle. For those who commit the most heinous acts of violence, it's easy to want to just execute them. In striving for a fair and just world, however, even the worst among us deserves legal representation.
Who, then, would freely offer his services to the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and defend him fairly? Over the last half century, this job has primarily come down to one man: Jacques Vergés, whose expert legal skills have worked wonders for freeing and reducing sentences for scores of revolutionaries and dictators. Director Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune) has chronicled the life of this walking moral contradiction in his documentary Terror's Advocate, a life as wild as any international spy novel and a character that would beg to be created if he wasn't real.
The son of a French diplomat and a Vietnamese woman, Vergés grew up on Reunion Island, inherently understanding the destructive power of imperial colonialism and, as soon as he was able, joined de Gaulle's resistance against the Nazis. Afterward, he went to law school, where he first met such people as Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot, and there Vergés realized his calling. He became involved in the Algerian resistance of French occupation, defended the revolutionaries in court, and even married Algerian guerilla hero Djamila Bouhired. Using what became known as the "Rupture Defense," Vergés placed the Algerians up as freedom fighters struggling against European colonialism, an even greater crime against humanity than a bomb here and there. For a crime that would ordinarily result in death, Vergés turned these people into heroes, and a wellspring of public opinion from around the world forced their release. Vergés went on to defend a number of important and well-meaning revolutionaries using the same defense, but just as his profile was at its highest, he disappeared for nearly a decade. During this time, reports of him surfaced in connection to European and Middle Eastern terrorists, but his whereabouts remain unrevealed to this day. Regardless of where he was, when he returned, his focus had changed. No longer solely interested in anti-colonial causes, he began defending some very disreputable characters, such as famed terrorist Carlos the Jackal and the Nazi "Butcher of Lyon" Klaus Barbie. Vergés became a one-man defense team for the indefensible, outperforming the vastly larger masses of lawyers assembled for the prosecution.
It's easy to see justice and honor in defending people who fight back against oppression. Our own country was won through revolution, and nobody would consider it justice if George Washington or Thomas Jefferson was brought up on charges of war crimes. It would be easy if Vergés cared only about money, the stereotype of the soulless lawyer selling his morality to the highest bidder. Vergés seems to be both things, an oddly principled but entirely purchasable man. His willingness to represent the entire spectrum of morality and his ability to separate his own personal standards from those of his clients turns him from a hero into a more confounding character than fiction could produce. Terror's Advocate, likewise, is one of the more conflicting documentaries in recent memory. Like Schroeder's 1974 General Idi Amin Dada, we are granted amazingly close access to Vergés and those talking about him. Given that some of these people are known terrorists and revolutionaries, it's shocking the amount of detail they offer in their personal dealings with Vergés. More shocking still is the complex web of revolutionaries, terrorists, political leaders, and the true scum of the Earth that Vergés deftly travels, maintaining all the while that he does everything for the right reasons.
For all that Jacques Vergés has done in his life that I can happily support as just, such as his work with the Algerian revolution, he has defended people so utterly reprehensible that it is beyond words. It would be nice if political beliefs were as black and white as we sometimes think they are. I constantly make judgments on things I read and see; sometimes they're snap decisions and sometimes they're well-reasoned, but I'm always confident in what I've decided. The trouble is, Vergés' argument, crazy as it may seem on the surface, makes too much sense for me to dismiss it as mere justification. While some of his reasoning mimics that of Holocaust revisionists, he has undoubtedly done maverick and important work, which is what he wants viewers to believe, but the combination is scary. Is Jacques Vergés a bad man who has done good work or a once-good man spoiled by money and power? Terror's Advocate hinges on this very conflict, and because Schroeder does such a good job staying out of it and letting the characters tell the story, it is up to viewers to resolve.
Interesting a story as this may be, Terror's Advocate is entirely too long. I'm sure that there is the potential for hundreds of pages of text and hours of documentary films to adequately tell the entire story of Jacques Vergés and, clearly, large parts of his life have been left out of this film. For all the great twists and turns in this potboiler, it spends too much time mired in documents explaining points that have already been made. Had it been shorter, I may have been hungry to learn more, but at over two hours, my interest in the subject waned.
Magnolia Home Entertainment has done an adequate, though unspectacular, job on their release of Terror's Advocate. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is crisp and clear in the still shots. Since the film is primarily talking heads, this is fine, but in the rare shot of action, there are tracking problems with the edges blurring as the camera moves. This may be from the source material, but it is jarring when it occurs. The sound is very good for what it needs to be. Voices come through loud and clear through the center, and the surround channels cleanly play the fine score by Jorge Arriagada. The only extra is a linear timeline of Vergés' life, important because the story is told out of sequence and it's often difficult to keep all the players in this bizarre story in line.
Terror's Advocate may be a little long-winded, but it's far from guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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