His clients have included international terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal and war criminals such as Klaus Barbie. It is hardly surprising then that he proves adept at defending his own actions in this documentary about his life. Although veteran fiction director Barbet Schroeder cannot always shed light on the mysteries in Vergès’ career, he succeeds in showing how deep they are and the complexity of their origins.
As the journalist Lionel Duroy observes in the film, Vergès was born colonised. His mother was Vietnamese, his father from the French island of Réunion, and it was the anti-colonial movement that first brought Vergès to prominence as a young lawyer. His international career began in 1957 when he represented Djamila Bouhired, a young woman sentenced to death for planting a bomb in an Algiers café. The bombing campaign was later fictionalised in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), and Schroeder’s interweaving of scenes from the film with comments from those involved makes a fascinating sub-plot.
Vergès saved Bouhired from the guillotine, not so much through legal argument as an international press campaign. In its wake she became the darling of the anti-colonialist cause and Vergès became the lawyer of choice for ‘freedom fighters’ everywhere. His allegiance to Algeria continued after independence in 1962, and he followed its political lead in a succession of cases where he defended opponents of Israel. It is in this murky world of mingled extremes that he found many of his future clients, from Palestinian hijackers and left-wing German terrorists to Holocaust deniers and former Nazis.
Vergès cooperated willingly in making Terror’s Advocate and was happy to revisit the court where he defended Bouhired to recount the experience for Schroeder’s camera. However these are rare moments when the film steps outside a format combining archive footage and interviews, whether with Vergès himself, his former clients or assorted friends and commentators. Even so, Schroeder manages to draw moments of drama from these conversations, for example by following Vergès’ refusal to discuss Carlos on the grounds of client confidentiality, while Carlos’ own view of Vergès is delivered over a crackly phone line from the prison where he is now held.
The cast of supporting characters found by Schroeder and his collaborator Eugénie Grandval is impressive, even if explaining their connections takes time and a dizzying amount of detail. But the attraction of Vergès’ story is that it cuts across so many of the narratives of 20th century history, and it is remarkable that Schroeder has managed to tie so many of its threads into one documentary.