The U.S. has had its share of notorious defense attorneys — Johnnie Cochran, Tony Serra, William Kunstler, Bruce Cutler — who have made it their business to represent controversial defendants, red-hot personalities whose alleged misdeeds were so polarizing that their trials were conducted in the court of public opinion.
But there’s no one on our side of the Atlantic to compare with Jacques Verges, the subject of Barbet Schroeder’s densely referenced documentary, “Terror’s Advocate.”
The Parisian attorney, a Thailand native, has taken the cases of an amazing rogues’ gallery — Algerian nationalist bombers, Congolese dictator Moise Tshombe, World War II Gestapo mass murderer Klaus Barbie, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Khieu Samphan, accused of crimes against humanity as Brother No. 4 in the Khmer Rouge killing fields.
The film asks the same question we might ask if we could cross-examine Verges: What drives a person to champion such a procession of dubious characters again and again over the years? Perhaps it was Verges’ status as an “oriental” growing up in the European colonial system. The son of a Vietnamese mother and a father from the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Verges remembers when people of color were expected to make way on sidewalks for white men.
So when the Algerian independence movement began in the 1950s and a group of nationalist rebels was arrested for blowing up French colonists, the young Verges was attractedto their cause. He explains on camera that he identified with the defendants. Because the colonial mentality viewed him as a “mercenary or traitor” and his clients as “assassins or apes,” Verges deliberately adopted what he called the “rupture defense.”
In this strategy of provocation, accused bomber Djamila Bouhired (later to become Verges’ wife) admitted placing bombs, and the defendants refused to appeal for mercy from the French court. When Bouhired was condemned to death, she laughed.
Veteran director Schroeder (he made “Reversal of Fortune,” “Before and After” and “Murder by Numbers,” all dramas concerned with criminal psychology) appropriates footage from Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterful docudrama “The Battle of Algiers” to illustrate this key period in Verges’ life. It was also a turning point in world history.
After that, Verges defended a dizzying array of questionable individuals, most of them involved in wars of national liberation. The film bogs down a bit discussing Verges’ “missing” years — when his associates included Palestinian and German terrorists as well as the infamous Carlos the Jackal — but this documentary’s main job is to sort out at least some of Verges’ complex motives. That it does, as thoroughly as any film could.
Terror’s Advocate ***
Starring Jacques Verges, Jamila Bouhired, Pol Pot, Magdalena Kopp, Hans Joachim Klein, and Anis Naccache
Written by Rita Dagher
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Running time 2 hours, 12 minutes