The socialist Mehdi Ben Barka was a leading figure in the national liberation movement which won Morocco independence from France in 1956. While in exile in the 1960s he continued to play a role in the anti-colonial movement internationally.
In 1965 he was abducted after the CIA and the Moroccan and French secret services set a trap for him that also drew in the film director Georges Franju and the writer Marguerite Duras. Ben Barka was never seen alive again.
An excellent new film, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, examines the mystery of his disappearance. I asked the film’s director, Serge Le Péron why he had chosen to make it now.
“What sparked it off was when the co-writer of the film, Frédérique Moreau, told me about a discussion she’d had with the film director Georges Franju.
“He’d talked about a traumatic time he’d been though in the 1960s after which he’d given up drinking and had been unable to work. I was very affected by the idea that cinema was at the heart of this trap and I wanted to make a film about it.
“In political terms it seemed important to remind people that there was a time when the Third World, and its leaders, were engaged in a universal political project that was progressive and secular, and that these leaders were all assassinated by the CIA - Patrice Lumumba, Ben Barka, Salvador Allende. These people were on the left and they were fighters, political figures with a collective vision of the world.”
The film focuses on the role of the Tricontinentale, a federation of national liberation movements and newly independent states brought together by Ben Barka.
Le Péron was keen to emphasise its role because, “At certain points in history there are people who are able to federate diverse elements and so politically, at the time, that was obviously what made Ben Barka precious as far as we were concerned, and dangerous for the US.
“So making him disappear was a sound calculation by the Americans in the short term because the Tricontinentale collapsed.”
The colonial question has been the subject of a number of French films recently. For Le Péron this was, “the return of the repressed.
“With a few marginal exceptions there have been no films on the Algerian question until recently. Now there’s a very strong return to all these issues. That’s partly down to the passage of time and because there is a need to understand the historical background to the question of integration.
“But there’s also something else, which is that French cinema has always been very inventive, but it’s never been an especially politically committed cinema. There have been film-makers who have been politically committed, but not necessarily in their work.”
The way the story is filmed gives it a very claustrophobic air. Wasn’t there a risk that audiences would be left with the idea that we can’t do anything against the power of the state?
Le Péron said, “Filming Paris coldly, like a trap, was an aesthetic and a political choice. But does that mean there’s no hope?
“The film came out in France last November, in the middle of the riots in the banlieues (France’s impoverished suburbs). Almost every evening I went into the banlieues to talk about the film.
“As it was about Ben Barka there were a lot of families there from North Africa, and particularly Morocco. For them the film was about a time when to be called Ben Barka was a heroic and positive thing. Today the everyday racism of French society means a name like that is more associated with Bin Laden.
“The school students there were impressed to find out that Ben Barka was a prestigious figure for people like Marguerite Duras, who they study in school. It’s a symbolic, rather than a directly political thing, but I think this is important. It recalls a period when the Third World carried many of the hopes for humanity.”
I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, currently on general release, is reviewed in this month’s Socialist Review, The Dirty War