Tuesday, October 23, 2007


TERROR'S ADVOCATE is a deeply disturbing and important documentary by Barbet Schroeder. Nominally, it's about French lawyer and terrorist-sympathiser Jacques Verges. More widely, the movie documents the history of post-WW2 terrorism.

The movie skips quickly over Verges' early life. As a mixed-race child, he experienced racism at the hands of French colonists in Reunion, but still fought for the Free French in WW2. He was fighting for liberty, he claims. He was an anti-colonial activist as a student. The movie then spends 45 minutes on Verges' first infamous case. He defended the pretty young women who planted bombs in the French quarter of Algiers and became folk heroes to a people hungry for independence. Not only did Verges sympathise with his clients, he actually married Djamila Bouhired, having agitated for her death sentence to be commuted. Verges does not apologise for violence or death or for creating a disruptive form of legal defence that subverts court cases into publicity events. He feels that if a terrorist group has the backing of a people, it is legitimate. The establishment are the traitors. His companions of this period are similarly unrepetentant: Abderrahmane Benhamida gives up bombing for a while because he regrets mutilating people. He doesn't mind killing them, you understand. In this period, Verges comes across as naive and more sympathetic than those he defends. And it is sinister to see them still free, often in positions of power, years later.

In the 1970s, Verges disappears for a decade. Maybe he was with his friend Pol Pot in Cambodia? Maybe he was in the Middle East? Or maybe he was just pissed off at being the lesser half of a famous couple, living in Paris, eating and drinking? He keeps his secret in this documentary, but the twinkle in his eye suggests that he loves the air of mystery he has created.

Verges reappears in the 1980s in France, hardened, cynical and apparently a gun for hire. He finds himself defending even more unsavoury people and having close contacts with Carlos the Jackal, the Baader-Meinhof gang, Palestinian terrorists, Nazi war criminals......Verges claims that he is still defending anti-colonial fighters but it is clear that money is more of a consideration. Even more despicable, he takes payment from Francois Genoud, a notorious Swiss Nazi to defend Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. Now let's be clear: there's nothing despicable in defending a murderer. This facilitates the rule of law. But to profess political symapthy as opposed to professional courtesy is to cross a line into a shady world of violence, terrorism, murder and crime.

What is more horrifying or more fascinating than a calm, harmless old man who has spent his life consorting with and advocating the use of murder as a political tool? Perhaps the laughing voice of Carlos the Jackal on a telephone bragging about how he took back another pretty terrorist, Magdalena Kopp, after Verges screwed her in Strasbourg? Or reformed ultra-left wing German terrorist HJ Klein in Algeria being congratulated, "Hitler was a great man". This documentary is full of such horrific scenes. The men responsible for Munich and other attrocities are shown to be living, breathing men and women who believe that they are logical and right. This testimony alone makes TERROR'S ADVOCATE an important and pertrifying film.

TERROR'S ADVOCATE played Cannes, Toronto and London 2007 and was released in France, Belgium and the Netherlands earlier this year.

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