Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Terror's Advocate

Before seeing this film I was vaguely aware of a French lawyer who defended people that no-one else would. So I was interested in seeing this film about Jacques Vergès. I was interested in why someone would do this and how would you mount a defence when the evidence is so damning and often the justice system trying the person is not seen as impartial.

The film starts in Algeria (well I think it does as I missed the first couple of minutes because I was caught up in a bus load of grey haired folk queuing to buy coffees, ice creams and tickets to go and see 'Sex in the City') with scenes from The Battle of Algiers. Jacques Vergès was one many French lawyers who arrived in Algiers for the terrorism trials as the French troops caught suspects. The right-wing lawyers came to work for the prosecution and the left-wing ones to work for the defence (Algerian lawyers were jailed by the French). Jacques Vergès defended Djamila Bouhired and his strategy differed from many of his fellow defence lawyers by challenging the court and its assumptions at every opportunity and accusing the court, prosecution or state of equivalent or worse evil than the accused are being prosecuted for. A strategy he calls the 'rupture defence'. Djamila was sentenced to be guillotined, but an international campaign for her release, inspired by Jacques Vergès's defence, got her (and others) reprieved.

Jacques Vergès was born in Thailand and brought up on the island of Réunion, son of a French diplomat and a Vietnamese mother. His background explains his strong anti-colonialist stance. He became enamoured of Djamila Bouhired, converted to Islam and eventually settled in Algeria, married her and they had 2 children. But in 1970 he abandoned them and disappeared, reappearing without explanation in Paris in 1978. Even now he refuses to say what he was doing during those years (I suspect he likes the sense of mystery).

He then moved on to the Palestinian cause, in particular defending associates of "Carlos the Jackel" including Magdalena Kopp, with whom he became infatuated. But most famously he defended Klaus Barbie; arguing in 'rupture defence' fashion that the French State was being inconsistent with who they were trying for crimes against humanity.

Jacques Vergès has had a busy life and I've only described a fraction of the film and judging from what I've read elsewhere since, the film only covers a fraction of his life. This anti-establishment figure who is also very at home in the luxuries of Paris life serves a useful purpose of shining a light on some of the hypocrisies of "The West" in general and France in particular as well as the more practical purpose of defending those who might not get an effective defence elsewhere.

Ian's rating 4/5

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