In his documentary L'Avocat de la terreur, Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Murder by Numbers) sits down with controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who has represented infamous figures such as Klaus Barbie, Slobodan Milošević and high-profile militant political figures throughout the course of his legal career. Staunchly anti-empire and in support of aggressive decolonization tactics, Vergès and his life achievements serve as absolutely fascinating subject matter. Equal parts exposed and elusive, he chainsmokes his thick cigars as he retraces some of the most notorious moments of his professional and personal life. Particularly when he defended prisoner Djamila Bouhired of the French-Algerian resistance (they later married) and the aforementioned Barbie in the eighties, for crimes against humanity. Even more fascinating than the much-publicized trials and roster of clients is the period in his life from 1970 to 1978 (called "The Missing Years"), when he seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. Much speculation ensues to this day about what exactly he was doing and who he was working for/with (he is smilingly tight-lipped on the subject), although he published books and pamphlets during this time period as well.
The documentary is almost paralyzingly thorough in the wealth of information it presents and the various documents employed to tell the greater narrative. Present-day interviews with Vergès and other key personalities, archival and secret government footage, photographs, audio clips, phone interviews, and newspaper clippings... With all these valuable sources in his arsenal, Schroeder is able to transcend the kind of dull history lesson lecturing most films like these fall back on. However, the fact remains that there are five potential films contained within this beast of a project. With a running time of 135 minutes (feeling quite longer), at times the piece seems over-researched to a fault. After sticking to a fairly coherent and linear time line with the Algerian struggle for independence and Vergès' increasing interest in the Palestinian cause, the film goes off on several tangents. One issue, the most fascinating for my money, is raised fleetingly and never quite explored fully - in response to criticism by a close friend for daring to defending Barbie, Vergès states that he wished to make a comparison between the Nazis' role in the Holocaust and the violent measures deployed by the French government in Algeria during the struggle for autonomy. It is a difficult question, and I wish Schroeder had paused here for longer and asked Vergès to expand a little more. As it stands, a strong B. A true wallop of a film and a lot to digest in one sitting, but well worth the head spin.
Screened on Friday, September 7th, 2007 at the Scotiabank Theatre (#3) during the Toronto International Film Festival.