Mehdi Ben Barka was one of the leaders of the anti-colonial movement which won Moroccan independence from France in 1956. Forced into exile under the repressive regime of King Hassan II, he was kidnapped in Paris in 1965. His body has never been found. Although French government archives on the case were recently opened, no conclusive evidence of what became of Ben Barka has been uncovered, making it – according to this film – the world’s best kept state secret.
Drawing on archive material, interviews and documentary footage, the film carefully pieces together the circumstances around Ben Barka’s disappearance, recreating them in film noir style as a documentary thriller. The events are posthumously narrated by the film’s central character, Georges Figon, a small time crook with connections to both the Parisian arts scene and the criminal underworld.
Through these links Figon finds himself acting as the bait which lures Ben Barka into a trap set by the Moroccan secret services, working – as ever – in collusion with the CIA, along with their French counterparts.
At the time, Ben Barka’s abduction drew attention to President de Gaulle’s parallel police force or “barbouzes” – a sinister clandestine network that sprawled over the grimy underbelly of the French state.
Figon is drawn into the Ben Barka plot by the former Gestapo collaborator and gangster Georges Boucheseiche, whose friendship with Hassan II’s interior minister General Oufkir, and membership of the Gaullist security unit, the SAC, made him a key player in the Ben Barka affair.
Footage of de Gaulle shows him declaring that France’s responsibility in the affair amounted to nothing more than two French police officers escorting Ben Barka to a meeting with his political associates where matters, as de Gaulle put it, could be “settled”. The manner of this settling is conveyed by the relentless sound of muffled beating through the ceiling of Boucheseiche’s house on the outskirts of Paris.
The film deliberately avoids the kind of spectacular dramatising or heroic characterisation which tends to typify political thrillers. There are no white liberals on hand to save the day here. Similarly, although the meticulous attention to period detail runs the risk of aestheticising the story, turning it into a kind of political costume drama, Le Péron’s settings and confined camera shots, and Charles Berling’s brilliant portrayal of Figon, create a mood of seedy claustrophobia which convincingly evokes the ruthless sleaziness of the French state’s operations in the aftermath of the Algerian war.
This is an appropriate film, then, for the final months of the presidency of Jacques Chirac, inheritor of Gaullist networks of corruption across France and Africa.
But it also resonates in a wider sense. Ben Barka is shown preparing a conference, set for Havana in January 1966, of the Tricontinentale, a federation of national liberation movements and newly independent states, which he led. The conference was to offer support for the Palestinians and for Cuba, and call for an intensification of armed struggle against imperialism. It would, Ben Barka claimed, unite “the two strands of world revolution: one dating from the October Revolution and another emerging with the revolutions of national liberation”. Within weeks he was dead.
Ben Barka, as one of the characters in the film remarks, was someone who made it harder for the enemies of national liberation struggles to portray them as wars of religion. Saïd Smihi, co-author of the screenplay, puts it another way: ‘When you kill Ben Barka, you end up with Bin Laden.”
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