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I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed
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by Mel Valentin

"Of limited interest to non-Francophiles."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: With a provocative title like "I Saw Ben Barka Killed" ("J'ai vu tuer Ben Barka"), viewers unfamiliar with the subject matter would probably expect a "based-on-true-events" political thriller along the lines of Costas Gavras' 1968 film, "Z." Alas, no. Directed and co-written by Serge Le Péron, the mid-sixties era set "I Saw Ben Barka Killed" focuses on the "I" in the title, a singularly unaccomplished con artist, Georges Figon (Charles Berling) who, never more desperate than when the specter of making an honest living, rears its head, agrees to produce a documentary on decolonization. Political intrigue, double-crosses, disappearances, and murder (including the central character's) follow.

Opening Sunset Boulevard style, we first meet Georges Figon face down in a pool of blood as the local police drift around his body, more interested in going through the motions than in actually discovering the hows, whys, and whos behind Figon's death. Figon may be dead, but he's the talkative kind of dead (just like the central character in Sunset Boulevard). He expresses incredulity and disappointment at his early demise, but then switches into past tense mode, rewinding back weeks and months to the events that led directly or indirectly to his untimely death by person or persons unknown.

Figon may be a petty criminal, but he's the kind of petty criminal who somehow counts novelist Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) as a friend and business partner. When we first meet Duras, Figon is trying to convince her to write a screenplay around a story of his (whether fictionalized or true remains unclear). Duras tolerates Figon and his daydreaming, but it's not until several criminal associates approach Figon that his prospects take a temporary upswing. Figon's associates inform him that a Moroccan named Chtouki (Azize Kabouche) wants to produce a documentary on decolonization. Chtouki is willing to front the necessary money, but with one condition: Figon must find a way to bring Mehdi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian), a Moroccan revolutionary to Paris. How? By offering Barka a position as "historical advisor" on the project. Quickly assenting, Figon gets Duras and director Georges Franju (Truffaut's one-time regular, Jean-Pierre Léaud) on board. Figon also promises his long-suffering actress/girlfriend, Anne-Marie (Fabienne Babe), a part in the film.

With the help of Philippe Bernier (Mathieu Amalric), another old associate with contacts in the revolutionary world, Figon travels to Cairo, Egypt, where he meets up with Barka. For his part, Barka seems flattered to assist the production, especially as the documentary will be unveiled at an upcoming conference of Third World revolutionaries in Castro's Cuba (this is 1965, after all). Franju's position as director turns out to be an added attraction, as Barka is a fan of Franju's. Figon's shady financiers are more than ecstatic when Barka makes it to Paris unescorted. As the title suggests, Barka never makes it back home. He's kidnapped from the streets of Paris as Figon looks on.

As speculation grows about Barka's fate in and outside France, Figon's backers refuse to pay him for his services, sending a penniless Figon to the press. Figon will tell all to anyone willing to pay his exorbitant asking price. Mixing fact, fiction, exaggeration, and hyperbole, Figon's stories become increasingly outlandish. He also becomes a wanted man, forced to move from rundown hotel to rundown hotel, traveling mostly at night. Figon's desperation and paranoia lead in only one direction, back to the beginning (or is it the end?) as a dead Figon fills in the details of Barka's last day for the audience.

If the above description makes I Saw Ben Barka Killed sound like a potentially fascinating political/crime thriller, it's not. Far from it. Director Serge Le Péron makes so many questionable choices, it's hard to know where to begin. Here's a start: choosing the superficially interesting Figon as the central character and narrator was a bad choice. Figon is shallow, one-dimensional, and an unsympathetic loser without a character arc. He's an inveterate daydreamer/schemer who never grows into self-awareness. Certainly, he moves from desperate to paranoid to increasingly desperate to increasingly paranoid, but that's as far as he goes. Le Péron would have done better by either going the docudrama route (e.g., multiple characters, shifting points of view, clearly defined timelines, no flashbacks or voiceover narrations) or simply chosen another character to center I Saw Ben Barka Killed on (e.g., Ben Barka himself, who, in the limited time he's onscreen seems to be a far better candidate for central character status).

Le Péron's questionable choices don't end there, however. Obviously hampered by a limited budget, Le Péron couldn't spring for digital matte shots of Paris in the mid-sixties. Instead, the shots are too limited in scope and range, giving us a cramped, inauthentic sense of period. Le Péron's nods to film noir stop at narrative conventions. With its flat, over-bright lighting, I Saw Ben Barka Killed could have been filmed for television. Then there's the obtrusive jazz score, meant to evoke the hip, happening artistic milieu of mid-sixties Paris. The jazz pieces Le Péron picks simply don't fit in with the visuals (there seems to be no connection between the music rhythms and the film editing).

Worse, after taking us through Figon's last days, Le Péron refuses to speculate or show who might have killed Figon. The audience is left to assume that the French police (working with the French secret services), Figon’s criminal associates, or Moroccan operatives killed him. It's a lacunae that makes little sense to leave unfilled, but then again, it's just one more indication that Le Péron didn't have a firm grasp on the material or what he wanted to say when he embarked on making "I Saw Ben Barka Killed."

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originally posted: 05/07/06 09:06:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2006 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

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