El Hedi Ben Salem M’barek Mohammed Mustafa, star of “Fear Eats the Soul: Ali,” and among the more tragic figures swept up in and discarded by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s creative clique, is afforded a postmortem appreciation of sorts in “My Name Is Not Ali.” Yet the subject remains a frustrating enigma in Viola Shafik’s documentary, which interviews former co-workers and North African relatives in an attempt to shed light on a figure it seems few got — or bothered — to know well. Nonetheless, this footnote to Fassbinder’s ouevre should intrigue the many arthouse types still fascinated by the director’s films and life.
The man primarily known as Salem was a well-born Moroccan who had already fathered three children by a wife he married at 15 (she was two years younger) when he decided to seek his fortunes in Europe. At a Paris cafe in 1972, he met Fassbinder and members of his already notorious, incestuous entourage. The dark, handsome, reserved stranger quickly became Fassbinder’s new lover and the latest addition to that floating creative ensemble.
Over the next three years Salem appeared in several of the group’s films and plays, most notably playing the titular figure in 1974 anti-racism drama “Ali.” But he quickly became a victim of — and party to — his benefactor’s drug- and alcohol-fueled rages. Amid all this, Salem inexplicably brought his two young sons north, to their mother’s still-unforgiving grief. Thrown into foreign cultures without language skills or any other preparation, one of the boys soon returned home, while the other was simply bounced irresponsibly from one temporary roof (including a reformatory) to another.
The most heart-rending material here is hearing that now middle-aged son recount without rancor what must have been a truly miserable formative experience. Eyebrow-raising moments come via the often surprisingly unenlightened racial attitudes aired even today by veterans of the Fassbinder circus who’ve lived to tell the tale (albeit in contradictory versions). Still invested in preserving their own roles in a now-legendary era, several seem eager to belittle supposed bit players like Salem (who nonetheless figured large enough that Fassbinder dedicated “Querelle” to him several years after severing ties). Meanwhile the subject’s relatives prefer to sanitize and sanctify his memory.
Somehow, amid all the chatter, the man himself remains a total cipher — it’s still unclear whether he was gay, bi or simply a sexual opportunist. Likewise, no one seems sure if his 1982 death in a French prison was due to suicide or a heart attack. (A written epitaph subscribes to the latter.)
The tech package, including myriad vintage film clips, is a tad unfocused and ramshackle, but serviceable.