By Craig Garaas-Johnson
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes
Who is Jacques Vergès? Moral conscience...or dark shadow? A manipulative, self-promoting, unscrupulous, amoral exploiter of misery as his critics claim, or a sensitive, empathetic defender of human dignity, even when the right to that dignity is claimed by individuals who have denied it to their victims?
As a criminal lawyer, Vergès is quite forthcoming about his general motivations. "Evil fascinates me," he has said, "the more a man is accused the more interested I am." Vergès contends that crime, or criminality, is what separates men from beasts. He professes great empathy for the world's "accused."
For all his charm and urbanity, Vergès represents a doorway to some very dark places indeed. For more than half-a-century, he has consorted with some of the most infamous figures of the post-WWII era, including Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Carlos the Jackal, Klaus Barbie and other despots, tyrants, mass-murderers, torturers and terrorists of one political hue or another. Some were his clients, others his friends. In this controversial, ambiguous documentary, Barbet Schroeder lets his audience come to its own conclusions about the morality of Vergès' work.
Wednesday, May 4, @ 7:00 p.m. Memorial Union Lecture Bowl The film is free and open to the public. A $1.00 donation is suggested.
Everyone knows attorneys have an ethical obligation to zealously represent their clients. That ethical obligation extends to those accused of even the worst crimes, no matter the discomfort we may feel when we see a lawyer standing up in court defending someone we deem a monster.
In the 2007 documentary film Terror's Advocate, Jacques Vergès is chronicled as such an attorney, posing a problem for audiences as he advocates on behalf of some of the 20th century's most infamous villains.
According to Zealous Advocacy and the Search for Truth, “The role of the attorney in an adversarial system is not to reconcile the cognition for the fact finder but rather to convince the fact finder, using all lawful means, to adopt his or her client’s cognition of controversy’s facts. The fact finder then distills “truth” from competing versions of the same tale.”1
Through obfuscation and distraction, Vergès defends his clients, sometimes going so far as to be accused of complicity in their crimes. Vergès' level of involvement with his clients, at times, reached the point that he disappears for eight years, with only minute details of the time period ever revealed.
“One of the most engaging, morally unsettling political thrillers in quite some time, with the extra advantage of being true.” -- A.O. Scott, Film Reviewer for the New York Times
In a society that often struggles with the rights of accused, Vergès zealous defense of his clients angers many, but do we have an alternative? Some argue that an attorney has a higher obligation to assist the judge and jury to find the “truth,” even if doing so causes the client to suffer. But “truth,” like innocence, is not a legal finding; one is found “not guilty,” they are not found innocent.
Squaring these obligations to the client and to our society means that sometimes the guilty will get away with the crime. We accept that risk as a society because the alternative leads to even greater threats. Consider the notoriously corrupt Star Chamber in 17th century England which influenced our adoption of the fifth amendment. At the same time, it doesn't make the dark world Vergès inhabits any easier to comprehend, or accept.
"You have no right to judge me. You're occupiers. I'm a patriot," says Vergès. Audience members will have to see for themselves if they agree with his assertion.
1. Alibhai, Jamil N., Brian A. Farlow and John D. Van Loben Sels. 1998. “Zealous Advocacy and the Search for Truth,” 61 Tex. B.J. 1009.
University of North Dakota. "Terror's Advocate" (2011). UND News Features. 46.