I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed

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Ben Barka was a prominent revolutionary activist from Morocco who was “disappeared” by the French authorities in 1965. Co-writers/directors Serge Le Péron and Saïd Smihi tell his story as a dramatic reconstruction of what probably happened and cast the suave Charles Berling as the crooked film producer who is persuaded by the secret services into acting as a decoy and luring Barka (Simon Abkarian) onto French soil. It’s probably of most interest to students of the politics of the era, so the question is whether it’s of any possible use to anyone else.

The answer is yes, if you enjoy stylish exercises in French noirist cool. Or if you’re a fan of Berling, who is a brilliantly drole actor, here easily giving the impression of a man trying really hard, for once, to do the right thing, and getting caught up in affairs beyond his experience.

If this film had been made maybe 30 years ago, you can bet it would have been an angry and possibly less entertaining affair. But in 2006 much water has flowed under many bridges and the tone is lighter, comedic here and there. For example the early statement that Berling’s Georges Figon makes about wanting to make a film called Bon Garçons (translated: Goodfellas) at precisely the point where he is starting to edge into a confrontation with gangsters.

This character of Figon – whose lines are all delivered from posthumous omniscience, Sunset Boulevard-style – is the film’s great triumph and its drawback. Cynical, apolitical, wanting only money, far too interested in celebrity, he can be seen as an avatar for the audience. But who got anywhere insulting their audience? Similarly, why assume that we all know the Barka story – do all French people who weren’t intimately caught up in the 1968 thing? – when it would take only a sentence or two here and there to bring the ignorant (of which I was one) up to speed. Similarly, we might or might not know who exactly the writer Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) and film-maker Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre Léaud) are but we probably don’t know how they fit into this jigsaw. A little elucidation wouldn’t have been that hard. Just a line… non?

Upsides include the decision to go pop art here and there – with surreal collages and abstractions taking over the screen in a film that is never less than glamorous.

And how do you, as Figon is teasingly asked at one point, “make a film about decolonisation around the world”? In a sense, this is how.

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2006

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