I spoke last week to Barbet Schroeder, the esteemed director of Terror’s Advocate, a doc that I wound up respecting more than liking. This led to conflicted feelings and a kind of blogger’s block when it came to posting something about it last week, when the film had its debut.
Terrorist’s Advocate is a portrait of Jacques Verges, a brilliant and vaguely charming French-Vietnamese attorney who’s defended (or been in some kind of collusion with) almost every big-time terrorist, anti-colonialist, revolutionary cowboy and anti-imperialist operative of the last 50 years.
It’s essentially a story of a bright, opinionated, anti-colonialist lawyer who began his professional life with great passion during the Algerian uprising, defending and then winning freedom for a beautiful anti-French terrorist named Djamila Bouhired and later marrying and having two children with her. But he gradually came to love being wanted by as many terrorists and freedom-fighters around the world, however dubious their credentials, as possible.
He came to love the attention — the heat of the action — and this hunger for engagement in and of itself (as well as the spotlight) gradually consumed him.
This, at least, is the impression I got from Schroeder’s film. Not that Verges stopped believing in revolutionary ideals or fighting U.S. imperialism or general oppression, but that he came to care a little more about being Jacques Verges than anything else. It goes that way for a lot of us, I suppose. We start out believing, fighting, trying to be heard or at least see our passion have some impact or result. But we end up owning and occupying a certain turf — a way of living, thinking, being — that becomes, in the end, the ultimate focus.
By the late ’60s Verges had become the terrorist go-to guy for legal defense and consultation. He is still at the top of this pyramid today. (Terror’s Advocate is obviously a kind of advertisement for Verges’ skills as an attorney.) The Baader-Meinhof gang, Carlos the Jackal, Saddam Hussein, allies of Khmer Rouge psychopath Pol Pot, Waddi Haddad, Slobodan Milosevic, former Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie…they all called him, dealt with him, trusted him.
Terrorist’s Advocate is an emotionally dry film — you could call it arid — but it’s not without fascination. For more than two hours Schroeder relates Verges’ history from the mid 1950s to the present, speaking only to Verges and the people who’ve actually dealt with him. There are no outside observers, no judges. Perhaps, for the sake of simple-minded souls like myself, there should have been. After the first hour or so I began to long for something more than Schroeder’s immaculate dispassion.
The movie reminded me that anyone with enough guile and brain cells can be charming. Villains do not scowl or glare or laugh fiendishly like they do in the movies. They smile and chat on the phone and order take-out food on weekends and enjoy taking long walks along country roads as much as anyone else.
I was going to run my mp3 of my chat with Barbet last week, but something held me back. I guess I just didn’t feel enough enthusiasm for the film to get myself up on the diving board so I could do my approach and then bounce off and attempt some kind of jacknife dive into the pool. I knew the fire and the feeling weren’t there.
But I’ve known and admired Barbet Schroeder for 20 years. I worked with him closely for a brief period at Cannon Films, when he was making Barfly and I was writing press kits. He came to a party I threw once, when I was married and living in a home in the Hollywood hills. He’s a fascinating guy, a superb filmmaker, always kind and fair-minded, one of my heroes. So I did my best with Barbet on the phone (he called from from the set of Inju, a thriller he’s currently shooting in Japan) and showed as much interest and enthusiasm as I could.
Terror’s Advocate is a film of great intelligence, but it does gradually lull you into a sort of stupor after a while. Is it possible to feel engaged and nodding off at the same time? Naturally I didn’t have the impertinence to say this to Barbet.