Thursday, June 14, 2007
Jacques Vergès is one of those people whose reputation in French would be known as 'sulfureuse' (the literal English translation gives only an incomplete indication of this adjective's resonance). Vergès, now aged a very healthy-looking 82, has made his name defending the indefensible in the courts of law, such as Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal (albeit only briefly), Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, Slobodan Milošović, countless African despots in suits brought against Amnesty International and he also offered to defend both Tariq Aziz and Saddam Hussein following their capture. A former Free French guerrilla, Vergès was a Communist Party member and anti-colonial agitator (he is Reunionese and half-Vietnamese on his mother's side) before he came to prominence defending the glamorous Algerian guerrillas Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif, whose bombing of two Algiers cafés in 1956 featured in Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers. Both were sentenced to death and later had their sentences commuted to life in prison and were released on Algeria's independence in 1962. Vergès later married Bouhired, but could not live in the shadow of a woman who seen as a national hero by most Algerians and disappeared for eight years from 1970 to 1978. Many people close to him believe that he spent those years in Cambodia with Pol Pot (with whom he was friendly) but former Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan disputes this.
Vergès is the subject of a new documentary L'Avocat de la Terreur by Barbet Schroeder, most famous in the English-speaking world for his Hollywood films Barfly, Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female. Schroder also directed the excellent General Idi Amin Dada in 1974, which was made with the co-operation of Amin himself and which was also featured in Kevin MacDonald's recent film The Last King of Scotland. I was expecting the film on Vergès to be equally gripping but it fails in a number of ways, not least because it is so uncinematic, having little to distinguish it from the intelligent but modest historical and political documentaries that can be seen on French TV every night after 12. Equally, the failure to cast any real light on Vergès' missing years (in spite of extensive interviews with the loquacious advocate) hampers the film.
After his return, Vergès turned to defending members of the Baader Meinhof group and also Palestinian militants. When Carlos the Jackal began to terrorise Paris and other European cities, on the command of the Iranian Islamist regime, but also for purely selfish financial motives, Vergès moved on to defending Carlos' wife Magdalena Kopp. According to Stasi files released in 1994 and compiled when Carlos was living in East Berlin in the early 80s, Vergès was party to the transport of explosives for which Kopp was arrested and convicted in 1982, though he has never been charged with this. Vergès insists that his defending undesirable people to be something he does merely out of professional duty, claiming at one point onscreen that he would 'even defend Bush' if he was asked to. However Vergès' connections with many dubious characters, such as Carlos and Swiss Nazi banker François Genoud, bankroller of Islamist terror groups and the defence of Klaus Barbie, suggests that perversely skewed convictions have been an equally strong motive.
Vergès, a charismatic man, who has an imperturbable composure talking on film about his life and convictions, is the epitome of the engaged, well-off 20th-century Leftist who has little concern for any of the blood shed by the causes which he espouses. The defence of Barbie rested on selective prosecution being mounted by the French state; Vergès claimed that far greater crimes were committed by French colonial regimes abroad. An arguable point (in Barbie's personal case) though a particularly repugnant use of moral relativism to try and exonerate a man who was clearly a murderer.
Shroeder's film, though enthralling in parts, is a disappointment in both its incompleteness and the fact that it fails to penetrate the opacity of Vergès' motivations and character. It is also a depressing film to watch, where perpetrators of genocide, mass murderers, Nazis, Islamic terrorists and psychopaths like Carlos are paraded in an essentially neutral light, remnants of the confused but vicious Leftist-Marxist pragmatism of the late Twentieth Century. A nightmare we're still trying to wake up from.