A Chat With Serge Le Peron…
Serge Le Peron’s latest film I SAW BEN BARKA GET KILLED is a noirish recreation of actual events – the kidnap and murder of Moroccan activist Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965. Weaving together archive footage and stylish reconstruction, the film outlines a conspiracy that involved the Moroccan secret service, the CIA and the French criminal underworld. FilmExposed’s Tom Alexander chats to its director Serge Le Peron…
How did the project come about?
The initial idea came from a discussion with Frédérique Moreau, who was the co-writer of the film. She had a talk with Georges Franju and understood that a specific event had happened in his life which had really traumatised him. This event was the kidnapping of Mehdi Ben Barka. I remember I was an adolescent at the time and that there had been some talk about the presence of Georges Franju and Marguerite Duras, but somehow that had been put aside or forgotten.
How has the film been received in France?
I was really surprised by the way the whole spectrum of critics and the French political class actually welcomed the film positively. There were a lot of political people – both left and right – who wanted to see the film. What’s interesting is that the film came out roughly one year after the riots in the suburbs, so I was going to present the film in these places and sometimes there were fires burning outside. The discussions were really interesting as a lot of people from the Moroccan communities came, and it was very important for the children of that community to learn that there was a time, not so long ago, when being called Ben Barka was a positive thing. I thought that was hugely important.
Do you think there’s a sense that if this story hadn’t been told now that Ben Barka’s story might have been forgotten and just swept away?
Certainly for the Magreb population of France, yes. Having said that, there are judicial trials mounted by the family of Ben Barka still going through the courts forty years after the event. On the 29th of October every year, not only the family, but also friends and political figures gather to pay their respects to Ben Barka, and for the forty-year anniversary of the event, they marked a square in Paris as a memorial next to Brasserie Lipp. What interested me in telling the story is why what happened forty years ago can explain what’s happening today… that one can kill people who are fairly moderate, and that leads the path, in a way, to people like Bin Laden, people who are much bigger threats to deal with.
What do you think of Georges Figon, the man who lured Barka to his death?
I don’t like him. That’s what I said to Charles Berling. That’s why it was difficult for him to play the character because when I felt that it became too sensitive and we had the opportunities to say good things about Figon, I said “No, stop”. But at the same time, Figon was a complex guy, you know. He was a gangster, but came from the French bourgeoisie. He was a victim of society and of himself. He spent half his life in jail and I actually think he was crazy. Bertrand Tavernier said that Charles Berling looked like Richard Widmark in Night and the City. Widmark’s in the same sort of situation – an awful guy, but mired in a desperate situation.
Why do you think the Ben Barka affair affected Franju so deeply?
Georges Franju was the great director of ambiguity. In his movies, you can see people who are supposed to be honest men, and behind that, they were criminals. At one moment in his life, he had exactly, that character in front of him – Georges Figon – and he didn’t see that, didn’t recognise it. That’s why I think he was so depressed afterwards. Something was broken inside.