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  • 12A
  • Drama
  • 2005
  • 103 mins

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed


Serge Le Péron and Saïd Smihi's noir-tinged period docudrama unearths scandalous skeletons left over from the days of French colonialism


For more than three decades now, France has been trying to forget its atrocious conduct towards those who resisted its presence in North Africa, but in 2005, at a time when another imperialist power was becoming entrenched in the Middle East, the uncomfortable details of France's colonial past were to resurface in two very different films: Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning Hidden, and Serge Le Péron's I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed. The latter is a thrilling docudrama in which all the mystery, scandal and conspiracy behind an unsolved political abduction from 1965 are imaginatively refashioned as Melvillean noir.

Fast-talking ex-con Georges Figon (Berling) is trying to go legit as a film producer, so when he is introduced by his underworld associates to Moroccan businessman Chtouki (Kabouche), he cannot believe his luck. Chtouki proposes a leftist documentary on decolonisation, and agrees to finance it in full provided that Figon can get dissident intellectual and Third World activist Mehdi Ben Barka (Abkarian) on board as the film's historical advisor. Smelling money, Figon uses the left-wing credentials of the film's writer Marguerite Duras (Balasko) and director Georges Franju (Léaud) to lure Ben Barka from his Egyptian exile to discuss the project in a Parisian brasserie.

En route to his scheduled meeting, the Moroccan idealist is ushered into a car by two policemen, and never seen again. Having connived in the kidnapping, Figon finds himself way out of his depth in a complicated plot that involves the police, the French Secret Services, Morocco's Interior Ministry, the CIA, and a former Gestapo collaborator turned gangster. True to his own nature, instead of lying low till the whole mess blows over, Figon keeps spinning stories, both true and false, to any journalist willing to pay. It will be the last mistake he ever makes.

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed is a heady blend of historical fact and inventive surmise, archival footage and stylish period dramatisations. All the film's characters, and most of its individual events, are real enough, but by leaving it to his anti-hero Figon to draw the invisible connections between them, Le Péron is able to introduce more speculative material through a most unreliable narrator - a narrator who is both a compulsive liar and, more importantly, face-down in a pool of blood as he tells his dead man's tale, Sunset Boulevard-style. And, like Sunset Boulevard, this is also a film about the power, and casualties, of cinema itself.

Most of all, though, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed is a noir-tinged snapshot of a society that must one day, like Figon in his final living moments, look itself in the mirror while awaiting the inevitable consequences of its past actions. A surprising amount of Le Péron's scenario for the Ben Barka affair is drawn from documentary evidence now in the public domain, but even if one wishes to quibble with the details of his account, the general picture remains of Western states behaving shamefully, abetting cold-blooded murder, and making a travesty of justice - and that is something for which we are all still paying the price.

With its moody jazz score, big-name cast and labyrinthine plotting, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed manages to fall somewhere between the kind of anti-imperialist documentary that its protagonist hoped to make, a gripping political thriller, and a tragic mystery.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Charles Berling, Fabienne Babe, Josiane Balasko, Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Marie Winling, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Simon Abkarian, François Hadji-Lazaro, Azize Kabouche
  • Director: Serge Le Péron
  • Screen Writer: Serge Le Péron, Frédérique Moreau
  • Producer: Gilles Sandoz
  • Photographer: Christophe Pollock
  • Composer: Pierre-Alexandre Mati

In a nutshell

Political conspiracy and personal tragedy converge in this thrilling ride through a 1960s scandal.

by Anton Bitel

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