Tom Dawson talks to legendary French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder about the law, Japan and a lost classic
‘I don’t like being called an auteur’, explains the 67-year-old maverick filmmaker Barbet Schroeder. ‘I just like jumping between different projects.’ Certainly the Iranian-born Schroeder has enjoyed a richly varied cinematic career, starting out in the mid-1960s as a producer for French New Wave directors such as Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette (he both produced and acted in the latter’s fantastical Celine and Julie Go Boating). He made a celebrated documentary about the African dictator General Idi Amin Dada some 30 years before The Last King of Scotland, and he has worked regularly in the American studio system, examining the extreme behaviour of characters in the likes of Barfly, Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female. ‘Making a film in Hollywood for me is like bullfighting’, he says with a smile. ‘It’s like taking on a big bull and seeing if you can make something personal and distinctive.’
This fortnight sees the Scottish release of Terror’s Advocate, another of Schroeder’s documentaries about a larger-than-life and deeply controversial political figure, in this case radical French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who defended members of Algeria’s FLN movement in their war of independence against France in the 1950s. Vergès went on to act as counsel for all manner of dictators, terrorists and war criminals, including Klaus Barbie, Slobodan Milosevic, Carlos the Jackal and even Pol Pot. Through Vergès’s extraordinary career, which included an eight-year disappearance, Terror’s Advocate addresses some of the complexities of international terrorism during the second half of the twentieth century, not least the bizarre alliances between seemingly ideologically opposed organisations.
Schroeder admits that Vergès was once his political idol, recalling that he himself ‘was very close to the Algerian independence movement in the early 1960s. I was 20 years younger than him, and while I was a student in Paris, at school and at university, I followed everything he was doing in Algeria. I drifted away from politics and became more involved in movies, but I kept hearing about Vergès when he started doing the Klaus Barbie trial. He is such an enigma. How could he have gone from defending the Algerian cause to defending Barbie? That’s the journey I wanted to find out about.’
Having completed Terror’s Advocate, Schroeder moved straight on to filming the Japanese thriller Inju, starring the French actor Benoit Magimel. ‘It was the most insane project I’ve ever put together’, he laughs. ‘We were shooting in Tokyo and we couldn’t get the permits to shoot anywhere – at one point we thought we might have to give up the movie completely. I had a crew of 100 people, most of them young women, and they were incredibly hardworking. It was Japanese hours – you work for 10 days, 16 hours a day, and then rest on the 11th!’
Whilst editing and adding the music to Inju, Schroeder is also planning pre-production on another American film, which will be scripted by Reversal of Fortune writer Nick Kazan. He does have one lingering regret however: namely that his Colombian-set drama Our Lady of the Assassins has never been released in the United Kingdom. ‘A British distributor bought it, but they won’t release it, and they won’t sell it to anyone. To me it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever made.’
Terror’s Advocate, GFT, Glasgow from Mon 2–Wed 4 Jun.