Barbet Schroeder's film was awarded the prize for best documentary at Cannes, and it is a riveting experience. The picture offers a candid view of the reactions and personas of many important international terrorists who have been in the news since the 1960s. But the story centers on the career of Jacques Vergès one of Europe's most controversial defense attorneys seen through a critical and, at times, overly sympathetic camera. From the start the viewer should be aware that the actual victims of terrorism, those who were the first to die at the hands of the killers, are very rarely mentioned or shown and that the perpetrators of those crimes are portrayed by their attorney as "soldiers" fighting for a just cause.
At the beginning of the Vergès story, around 1932, there was the vast French Colonial Empire with over 100 million subjects many times more populated and immense than France itself. The rare product of intermarriage in those days of strong racial prejudice, the attorney to be is the son of a French father from the island of La Réunion, located in the Indian Ocean, and a Khmer mother. But he is culturally and emotionally completely French while his features retain an elegant and distinctive Asian character. From the start the audience understands that he is also a consummate actor given to high flying histrionics who could certainly have played many leading roles at the Comédie Française.
In 1944 Vergès joins De Gaulle's Free French and stays on in Paris after the liberation where he attends law school and becomes active in various anti-colonialist student associations. One of his close friends is a Cambodian student who will later become the infamous "brother" Pol Pot. The key incident that sets the colonial issue on fire is the violence of May 8, 1945 in the small town of Sétif in Algeria where the celebrations of the German surrender VE Day - turn into a tragic confrontation between Arab nationalists and French settlers. According to the film Algerian nationalists were waving the green and white flag of independence that was banned by the authorities, a policeman fires a shot killing one of the demonstrators and a murderous scene followed that continued for many days throughout most of eastern Algeria.
The documentary includes some rare film clips of that tragedy. The Algerians ended up killing 147 Frenchmen throughout the region while the repression took an immensely disproportionate toll estimated between 4,000 and 40,000 depending upon the sources. Vergès puts the number at 10,000 and he may be closer to reality.
A few key facts are omitted from the documentary either voluntarily or due to time and space constrictions or both. In 1945 the French army had only 60,000 men in all of North Africa since most of its troops were in Germany. During the incidents local authorities panicked and distributed rifles to the French settlers and even to Italian POWs who took a harsh revenge on the Algerians. The film barely mentions the fact that nationalist fervor had been building up since the Operation Torch landings of 1942 and that the official American position was to encourage national independence movements. OSS officers in Algeria in 1943 were distributing copies of the Atlantic Charter in Arabic to the population. The Sétif massacre didn't boil over in a void.
A great wave of hope that immediate independence was at hand swept the land because of the victory of 1945, along with rising expectations and many years of frustrated desires for improvement and autonomy.
Another important missing component is the economic reality of North Africa in 1945 after the ephemeral prosperity provided by the hundreds of thousands of Allied troops suddenly vanished as they moved on to Italy and France, the local population settled into a routine of low wages, widespread poverty and dangerously high unemployment. France itself was in the process of digging out of the disastrous war and the depredations of the German occupation and had little to offer to any of its colonies.
The bloody repression of May 1945, as General Duval stated and is underscored in the film, would buy France "ten years of peace" in North Africa. His prediction turned out to be true almost to the month when the Algerian war began on November 1, 1954.
The film fails to investigate any of the French victims nor does it offer any details other than interviews of Algerian FLN nationalists who praise terrorism as an instrument of policy to achieve independence. No French survivors or military men who took part in that tragedy are interviewed and the audience is only informed by a small box in a corner of the screen that there were any French victims of the tragedy at all. The unrest is portrayed as spontaneous, coming almost without any warning because of the violence that began with a policeman firing a shot into the crowd.
The film omits a second key element of the story: the reaction of metropolitan France to the bloody events at Sétif. The major French newspapers barely mentioned the troubles including those of the Communist party and when they did it was to point to the "obvious" influence of pro-Nazi Arab agitators and stay-behind German agents. The French Communist party, then the second largest in the country and a member of the government coalition, condemned the Arab nationalists in harsh terms lumping together Nazi Germany and Arab nationalism. This position was not simply based on political rhetoric since German and Italian propaganda had effectively forged strong links that existed between certain Arab Nationalists and Nazi-Fascist ideology that promised full independence to all Arab countries from Morocco to Iraq.
The documentary then introduces Swiss banker and unrepenatant Nazi, François Genoud, a longtime admirer of Adolf Hitler. In 1936 as a young man, Genoud was in Baghdad during an anti-British coup attempt by Iraqi nationalists and met among others, Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani, who was to lead a failed pro-Nazi coup attempt in April-May 1941. Continuing his trip to Jerusalem, then under the British Mandate, Genoud obtained an introduction to the Grand Mufti Hadj Amin El Husseini with whom he would maintain a long personal and business relationship until the Mufti's death in 1974.
None of this detail emerges clearly enough in the film and yet the Swiss banker would continuously play a key role in providing help and support for Arab nationalists and terrorists in Europe and the Middle East until his own demise in 1995.
Late in 1944, even before Nazi Germany was defeated, Genoud was thinking of ways to protect the property of former key Nazis: Hitler, Bormann, Goebbels and others who had produced books, paintings and diaries of different kinds that could be reproduced, translated and sold. Genoud was the first to translate and publish the famous monologs transcribed from Adolf Hitler's evening conversations known as Hitler's Table Talk and he successfully brokered the French and English language editions of that book in 1952 and 1953.
Genoud's reaction to the Algerian incidents of 1945 which he explained to his biographer in 1996 was unfortunately not included in the film:
"...the massacre [at Sétif] of Algerians who naively believed that the victory of freedom had dawned all over the world. It was also a revealing snapshot: the humiliated France of 1940 needing to reaffirm its power and role as the fourth great power. The fact that the Big Three grudgingly accepted that she be allowed to play because of the personality of General De Gaulle should have been enough to satisfy her vanity. Then France decided to "bash Arab heads" and I understood how the Arab revolt would draw the other subjugated peoples to carry on the struggle against cosmopolitan capitalism..."
"Cosmopolitan capitalism" in Genoud's neo-Nazi vocabulary is a euphemism for Zionism, Jewish finance and Jews in general, restating the old Nazi and Fascist slogans from the 1940s and giving new life to barely veiled genocidal plans aimed at the Israelis and Jews elsewhere.
Attorney Jacques Vergès defended Algerian FLN terrorists as early as 1955, among them the famous Djamila Bouhired who planted bombs in dance halls and cafés causing the death and horrible mutilation of innocent young French civilians. She came under the supervision of Yacef Saadi--interviewed in the film in his Algiers apartment, he is now a retired terrorist and a senator for life in the Algerian parliament. Djamila was condemned to death by a French court but the sentence was not carried out and she eventually went free becoming an icon to the Algerian people and to nationalist sympathizers everywhere. Vergès fell in love, converted to Islam and married Djamila with whom he had two children.
After moving his practice to Algiers after independence, Vergès was introduced to Palestinian terrorist groups during the 1960s and 70s when he had his first encounter with Genoud. But the attorney then mysteriously disappeared for several years and permanently deserted his wife and children. He later claimed to be living off money obtained in the defense of Moise Tchombe, the former president of Katanga province in the Congo who was being held in a prison in Algiers where he eventually died. Tchombe's death remains a mystery and the film is silent about the many rumors that he had been severely tortured by the Algerians and died during one of the sessions.
Vergès went on to defend terrorists and former Nazis from Klaus Barbie to the Baader-Meinhof gang, and Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez known as Carlos the Jackal, who is now in prison in Paris for the murder of two French police officers among many other violent crimes. The disturbing connection between Vergès and Genoud remains associated with political violence channeled to Arab terrorists, Nazi assassins, his old friend Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouges whom he professes to admire and "understand," as well as several brutal African tyrants.
Genoud was clever enough to always maintain a safe distance between himself and the murderous acts perpetrated by the killers he was defending, but in a few instances he did get much too close: as in the case of Dr. Wadie Haddad and Black September. In light of his activities it seems almost incredible that the Mossad never attempted to suppress Genoud who shared many of the same obsessions as attorney Vergès.
No wonder the two got along so well.
Be sure to watch this film.