Sunday, October 22, 2006

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

Go see this film! Unfortunately, it is only on 2 cinemas in London (and expensive ones at that and maybe that deserves a post in itself about how cinemas are a rip-off!)

I went to see the film I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, Friday night at the Curzon in Soho. Mehdi Ben Barka was an active opponent of the Hasan II regime in Morocco and a respected leader of anti-colonialism who “disappeared” in Paris in ’65 and was last seen getting into a car with two French cops.

The film opens with a main character, Georges Figon lying on the floor in a pool of his blood after an apparent suicide. The voiceover is provided by a “dead” Georges (rather reminiscent of the opening scene from Sunset Boulevard) who gives an overview of the political situation in the Third World and the anti-colonial struggles.

Georges Figon, had been in out of prison and had set himself up as a film producer. He’s always on the edge financially and desperate for cash. The film acts as a fusion of fact and fiction. Nobody really knows what happened to Ben Barka and is subject to conjecture. Though the CIA, and French state hold vast files on his “disappearance” but are unwilling to release all of them and have resisted attempts to do so. Therefore the script is based on records of the time, interviews with witnesses and so on which, has constructed the foundation of the story.

Georges Figon (who did exist) knew people involved in organised crime and had their own connections in politics. One of them being General Mohamed Oufkir, right hand man to King Hassan II of Morocco. Oufkir had been clamping down on political dissent and organising repressive measures to do this. Barka was a target even though he was now living in exile (he had been sentenced to death in absentia) in Cairo; his anti-colonialism and meetings with Che Guevara and Malcolm X was raising the hackles of the USA and France.

Figon was asked by an intermediary to organise a meeting with Barka to discuss making a film for the Tricontinential conference organised for January 1966. Figon roped in director Georges Franju and scriptwriter Marguerite Duras to help him (neither knew his real reasons for doing this). Figon, along with a journalist friend met with Barka in Cairo. It is obvious Figon knows nothing about anti-colonialism and is awkward being in Barka’s company.

The camera pans around the courtyard and we see secret service men from the States, Morocco and France watching Figon and Barka. There is a powerfully telling scene where the Moroccan secret service man, Chtouki and a member of the CIA, talk about murdering Barka in Cairo but they can’t as he is heavily protected. Chtouki says to the CIA man while pointing at the sky, “C’est vous!” I took that to mean that he is telling the American that they are in charge of the world.

Barka comes to Paris to meet Figon (and he knows what is going to happen) with the director Franju and his journalist friend. Barka is intercepted along the way by 2 French cops and bundled into a car and never seen a again.

The rest of film is devoted to Figon spiralling down into his own fear and paranoia. His mind is disintegrating. When it becomes open knowledge that Figon was connected to Barka’s disappearance, Duras accuses him of being, “scum”! Even his girlfriend turns on him. Figon did it for the money but he is now out of his depth and is being followed by men looking like secret service types. It all becomes like a film noir. People with guns, chase scenes and palpable fear. Figon tells his girlfriend what kind of gun he owns and that if he is ever found dead it won’t be through suicide.

As Figon lies on the floor dead, his voice over explains, “But luring Ben Barka, the Moroccan opposition leader, into a trap was mainly an opportunity for me to become a great movie producer. Nothing political about it. Just the big money.” He also admits,“What I didn't know is that I had hired the Grim Reaper as the Nemesis...”

There is an enquiry into Figon’s death and connections are made with Barka’s disappearance. Figon (in real life) maintained he saw Oufkir stab Barka to death. In the film we see Figon in the house where Barka was taken to in Fontenay-le-Vicomte that belonged to the gangster Georges Boucheseiche. Oufkir arrives and is informed that the package has “arrived”. Figon leaves the house.

There is old footage of de Gaulle saying that he didn’t know what had happened to Barka. But he would say that, wouldn’t he as the French establishment were “up to their neck in it”..

During the enquiry, other state sanctioned murders are brought up such as the murder of Patrice Lumumba (elected leader of the Congo) in 1961 with the complicity of the Belgium state.
The film ends with Figon casting his eye over the rest of the characters and their fate. Oufkir was shot in 1971.

The film exposes the shameful role the States and France played in abducting Barka. It also shows Figon’s own world against a backdrop of anti-colonial struggles and how these two worlds collide. A world he doesn’t really get but when the spotlight goes directly on him he uses it for his own financial gain yet at the same time it unnerves him. Towards the end it becomes apparent to Figon that he has no control over his life, he's been used and at what cost? I thought the guy who played Georges Figon gave a twitchy, nervous but believable portrayal of someone out of his depth.

It is another film which has been released in the past couple years specifically about colonialism and the sordid murderous secrets being thrown open to public scrutiny, others include Cache, Nuit noire - 17 Octobre 1961, Lumumba: La mort du prophete and Issac Julien’s film about Frantz Fanon.
Unfortunately, Ben Barka’s family are still fighting for the right to see the files which France and the USA have declined to release and to know what happened to him.

The release of these films will serve as a way of breaking free of the suppression and censorship which shrouds the shameful history of colonialism. It also serves as a powerful reminder of what happened in the past as the history of the oppressed and the champions of the oppressed always seem to be forgotten.

Oh and it has a funky jazz soundtrack as well.