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Dead man talking

There's a theory that any film whose central issue is notorious in its country of origin, but little known beyond the national boundaries, is not going play that well with a foreign audience, most of whom will be unfamiliar with the situation and characters from which it has drawn inspiration. A different view, one I happen to share, is that such films represent a gateway to cultural history that we might not have learned about otherwise. A good example is Julio Medem's Basque Ball, a densely packed two hours of information on the Basque Separatist issue that assumes a degree of foreknowledge on the part of its audience and makes no concessions to newcomers. It thus took some of the audience at our screening a while to find their feet, but many of them afterwards were expressing a desire to learn more about the conflict and its causes. In that respect the film had done its job by expanding awareness rather than just preaching to the converted.

The intriguingly titled I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed [J'ai vu tuer Ben Barka] definitely falls into this category, as part of its political gravitas comes from knowing just who Mehdi Ben Barka was and the scandal that surrounded his abduction from a Paris street by French Police on October 29th 1965, never to be seen again. Barka was an exiled left-wing Moroccan politician and a major figure in the Third World movement, and though idolised by many, his support for anti-colonial and worldwide revolutionary action made him a lot of powerful enemies. In 1965, he was in the process of organising the first global conference of Tricontinental, a worldwide federation of liberation movements and newly created third world states to be held in Havana in January 1966. This sort of thing did not, as you can imagine, endear him to the American government, and his support for the Algerian cause had also made him some serious adversaries in France.

In the guise of a political thriller, director Serge Le Péron's film draws on information and witness testimony from the past 40 years to propose a sequence of events surrounding Barka's disappearance. Thus a title that may seem to newcomers to contain spoilers is actually in the territory of, were such a film to exist, "I saw President Kennedy Get Shot," a supposition on events that we are expected to know full well actually took place.

The film kicks off with a nod to Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd with the revelation that the story is being narrated by man lying dead on the floor of his apartment, apparently the result of suicide. Following some neat opening credits and a montage of news footage that is engagingly nostalgic for more radical times, the film trips back a year to introduce us to our narrator, George Figon, an ex-convict and dodgy dealer who is moving into artistic circles. At this point he is discussing possible scripts with writer Marguerite Duras for a film that will star his actress girlfriend, or at least that's what he tells her. One day, he's offered a chance by a mysterious backer to produce a documentary on decolonisation – Duras will write, Eyes Without a Face and Judex visionary Georges Franju will direct, and the historical consultant will be none other than Mehdi Ben Barka. Except the film will never be made – the entire thing is actually an elaborate ruse to entice Barka onto French soil so that he can be quietly apprehended.

The key thing is that Figon, compelling played by Charles Berling, knows all this from an the start, and despite his seeming enthusiasm for the art of move-making, he's ultimately in it just for the money. Unprincipled and opportunistic, Figon is nonetheless an always interesting and peculiarly engaging figure, a motormouth driven by nervous energy whose later paranoia is vividly captured and surprisingly easy to sympathise with, especially when we are supplied with some solid reasons for his nervous state.

Unfolding in the manner of a noir thriller co-directed by 1960s period Costa-Gavras and Jean-Pierre Melville, the film aligns itself with Figon and keeps his shady employers deliberately at a distance, a nicely cast collection of well-worn faces and bodily bulk whose power and threat is effectively suggested, but whose actions are usually heard or alluded to rather than seen. Even Figon's film collaborators are sketched rather than drawn in detail, and the jury is still out on whether Jean-Pierre Léaud's portrayal of a weary, unhappy Georges Fanju hits the right note or is just a little flavoured with ham (I would offer the touching scene where he takes a call from Barka as evidence of the former). It's only appropriate that the character who makes the strongest impression is Barka himself – as played by Simon Abkarian, he exudes confidence and authority without a hint of arrogance, an object lesson in how to communicate much with seemingly little.

The sense of 1960s Paris is particularly well captured – I am, of course, talking from the perspective of someone who was not there, but it feels right, evoked through some fine set dressing and a laid-back jazz score and without excessive use of colour tints or attempts to recapture the visual styles of the Nouvelle Vague. As the story plays out, some key facts are omitted, which Le Péron saves for the final act (the film is divided into three chapters nicely titled The Groundwork, Things Take a Nasty Turn and The Killers), which hops back in time to fill in some crucial gaps, clarifying the reasons for Figon's descent into paranoia and suggesting an operation to neutralise Barka that extended beyond national borders.

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed is a consistently intriguing, entertaining and well told story whose observations regarding the behaviour of western powers towards Third World leaders and revolutionary thinking are as sadly relevant as ever. It also serves as a timely reminder that even the most progressive idealist has a Herculean battle on their hands when up against the combined forces of blood money and government.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the transfer on Artificial Eye's DVD is very impressive, displaying most pleasing colour reproduction and contrast and coping exceptionally well with darker scenes – even in the red-lit smoky dimness of a basement jazz club there is no sign of intrusive digital noise. Nice one.

Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 surround tracks are included, and good though the stereo track is, the 5.1 beats it on every score, a crystal clear mix that really captures the atmosphere of the locations (you can almost feel the cold wind that has policemen stamping their feet in the opening shot), and I was actually jumped later in the film when I heard a gun cocked behind my head.

extra features

Serge Le Péron interview (31:12)
The director tackles head-on the politics and facts of the story, the issue of decolonisation and his approach to the film, including the Sunset Blvd and Melville influence. It's a consistent interesting piece and a very useful companion to the main feature. The interview is conducted in a mixture of English and subtitled French, and he can switch between the two mid-sentence.

Theatrical Trailer (1:32)
A niftily assembled but slightly deceiving French trailer that too heavily emphasises the thriller elements.


A smart and compelling blend of noir thriller and political drama that offers a window into past events for those not familiar with the case and food for thought for the initiated. It looks and sounds great on Artificial Eye's DVD, and although there's only one substantial extra, it's a goodie. Recommended.

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed
J'ai vu tuer Ben Barka

Morocco / Spain / France 2005
98 mins
directed by
Serge Le Péron
Charles Berling
Simon Abkarian
Josiane Balasko
Jean-Pierre Léaud
Fabienne Babe
Mathieu Amalric
Azize Kabouche

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
subtitles .

Serge Le Péron interview

Theatrical trailer

Artificial Eye
release date
26 February 2007
review posted
22 February 2007

related review
Army of Crime

See all of Slarek's reviews