Jacques Vergès is a lawyer—a lawyer who makes Lynne Stewart seem like Atticus Finch. At the conclusion of Barbet Schroeder’s new documentary on Vergès, Terror’s Advocate, snapshots of a handful of his clients appear on the screen. It’s not a pretty list: Vergès has served as legal counsel for Slobodan Milosevic, Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal, and Tariq Aziz, to name a few. A die-hard radical born to a Vietnamese mother and French father, Vergès cut his teeth defending members of the Algerian National Liberation Front. From there, supposedly in the name of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, he has represented and associated with a smorgasbord of terrorists, Nazi-sympathizers, Islamists, dictators, and thugs.
It is to Schroeder’s great credit that his documentary avoids grandstanding and allows the viewer to come to his own conclusions about its subject. One might have expected this to be the case: Schroeder’s previous films include General Idi Amin Dada (1974), a fascinating and poker-faced examination of the psychopathic Ugandan dictator.
Whereas Idi Amin came across in the earlier film as creepily genial and unhinged, Vergès seems smug and self-important. As he chirpily recaps his career for the camera, he appears utterly oblivious to its moral dubiousness. And no wonder: At one point in the film, a good friend of his claims that Vergès would blithely be a terrorist himself, except for the fact that such a career wouldn’t allow him to indulge in his expensive tastes.
The end result is an engaging and disturbing documentary that investigates the relationship between revolutionary idealism and moral odiousness.