Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Playing Devil's Advocate

Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I no friends to back my suit at all,
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her! All the world to nothing!

- Shakespeare, Richard III I.3

There is a scene in Terror's Advocate, Barbet Schroeder's tantalizing new documentary of lawyer-to-terrorists Jacques Verges, in which Verges, describing the trial of Klaus Barbie (in which he appeared for the defendant), speaks with delight of the way the trial pitted him alone against 39 lawyers for the prosecution - implying, he suggests, that he was worth 40 of them. It's a rare glimpse into a carefully guarded inner life, and, for me, one of the most illuminating moments of the film, which, despite its two hour plus running time, fascinates more than it satisfies.

I say illuminating, because that quote, and the discussion of the Barbie trial that follows, illustrates what seems to me the central reason Verges does what he does. At heart, I would argue, Verges is a thrill seeker, a man who loves to take on impossible odds and thumb his nose at the establishment, a man addicted to his David-vs-Goliath role, to the spotlight that comes with being on the 'wrong' side of a high profile trial. For Richard III, in Shakespeare's play, wooing Anne matters not because he truly cares about her, but simply because it is an impossible courtship, a test requiring every ounce of creativity and perverse intelligence Richard possesses. Verges' addiction to defending the indefensible is driven, I suspect, by similar motives. How else to explain a man who happily refers to himself as 'the bastard' and exults in his inability to come up with some new surprise to throw his opponents off track every day of the trial?

This, I hasten to add, is merely my interpretation. Schroeder's documentary in no way champions this interpretation. In fact, for all its meticulous research and rich material, Terror's Advocate never really provides a coherent viewpoint on Verges at all, remaining (like the man himself perhaps) elusive and fragmentary.

Three things make this a deeply frustrating film. First, so focussed is Schroeder on examining Verges' defense of proven terrorists that he more or less ignores Verges' role in defending war-criminals and despots (his clients have included Slobodan Milosevic, Tariq Aziz and a whole string of African dictators). Verges' friendship with Pol Pot does get a fair amount of air time (too much, in my opinion) but since this amounts to little more than rumor and supposition, and the movie itself seems to question, if not deny, the persistent rumors that Verges spent three years in the 70's in Cambodia, it seems a little pointless. What is fascinating about the Verges story, I think, is the way he starts off defending FLN fighters in Algeria - a group of women who, though certainly terrorists in the strict sense of the word, were fighting for the independence of their country against a brutal occupation by the French - seemingly motivated by a concern for justice and sympathy for the anti-colonial struggle, and ends up defending war-criminals and mercenaries like Carlos the Jackal. Early in the film, Verges justifies his work in Algeria by pointing out that public opinion was behind his clients - the people of Algeria saw Djamila Bouhired (his first high profile client, later his wife) as a heroic figure. This is a tricky argument, but even if one accepts it, it raises the question of how Verges explains his decision to defend many of his later clients, whom public opinion was clearly against. It is a question the documentary never really asks, and a progression never really explored.

The second thing that makes Terror's Advocate frustrating is that Schroeder seems to assume a high level of familiarity with the history of terrorism in Europe, as well as with the trials being discussed. Again and again, the movie seems takes for granted that you know the central facts of the case: who was arrested, what were they accused of, what came out of it, etc. and simply fills in some additional detail on what Verges was doing / thinking and / or the political machinations behind the trial. This is intriguing material, but for someone whose knowledge of the main events being discussed is fairly sketchy, it can be bewildering. You constantly feel that you should have read about half a dozen books before you sat down to watch the movie. Some of this, I suspect, is because the film's primary audience is French, and would almost certainly be familiar with the material. But a little more background information for audiences outside France would have been helpful.

Most of all, though, Terror's Advocate is frustrating because it never quite coalesces into a coherent work. There are, I suspect, at least three full-length documentaries to be made around the material in this film. The first is a genuine profile of someone who has made a career out of defending the infamous - the factors driving him to choose such a career, his feelings about his clients, his justification for his actions, etc. The second is an investigative piece into the question of whether Verges, in the course of his career, has overstepped the line between attorney and accomplice, serving as a key go-between for the Carlos gang and others, and becoming, in a sense, a terrorist himself. The third is a documentary on the roots of the global web of terror, the connections that tie not only seemingly disparate groups all across the world, but the way these connections stretch back into support from Nazi-ism on the one hand and the imperialist policies of the Western countries on the other, as well as the way student groups around the globe have been drawn into and used in the service of terrorism. In attempting to cover all three at once, Schroeder takes on too much, and fails to fully deliver on any one, leaving us with a film that, for all its shocking and insightful moments seems haphazard, almost schizophrenic.

Of the three, the one Schroeder does perhaps the best job of is the second. The film dredges up a great deal of evidence that seems to suggest that Verges had long-standing and illicit ties with the Carlos gang (a claim that he denies - claiming that he had no interaction with Carlos until he became his client) as well as with a shadowy Swiss Nazi named Francois Genoud. The implication is clear and damning - Verges, Schroeder strongly suggests, is not merely a respectable lawyer with a penchant for taking on the cases no one else will touch; he is in fact a man deeply involved in the very network of terrorist activity whose protagonists he defends in court. The trouble with this story is Verges himself - a man who is clever enough to have spent a lifetime successfully avoiding being implicated in any illegal activity involving the clients he represents, is hardly going to be nailed down by a documentary film maker. Accusations and insinuations roll off Verges' back like water off a sly duck, and you're left with an unsatisfactory and smirking portrait of a man whose motives and actions remain, despite Schroeder's best efforts, obscure.

That said, this is a film well worth watching: the initial section around Verges' work in Algeria is engrossing, especially to viewers familiar with The Battle of Algiers (Schroeder's documentary includes scenes from that film, as well as interview footage with Yacef Saadi) and the second half of the film is insightful if only for the way it shows you how little you really know about terrorist politics / the evolution of international terrorism. And if you don't have the opportunity to see the film, you can at least check out the film's website, which, though obviously less high-impact than the film, is, on the whole, much clearer and more informative.


??! said...

You constantly feel that you should have read about half a dozen books before you sat down to watch the movie.
Or (some days) before reading this blog. ;)

m3 said...

Hi,I just came across your blog,is your blog name related to Douglas dams series?(I am pretty sure it is,since you also have links on lines of life,the universe!)

Anonymous said...

"But a little more background information for audiences outside France would have been helpful"

You mean a dumbed down version. As you correctly note the intended audience is French. Not having heard of Verges before watcing the movie, made the portrait just plain bewildering to me.

Th acting in the Devil Knows You Are Dead is overdone, yes, but the movie's meant to be no more than a thriller, a smarter thriller maybe. Also, I couldn't figure why the movie hasn't receive a wider, mainstream release.

Falstaff said...

??!: No! Really?

m3: Errr...yes. Just do the math.

anon: Not necessarily. Just providing a few basic facts wouldn't dumb down the film. Just make it more accessible. All that's really needed is to take a summary of the information found on the movie's website and include a couple of screens of text at strategic points to let us know what everyone is talking about.

Agree with you about Devil.

??! said...

Just do the math.
You've just been waiting to use that line, haven't you?