Algerian documentarian Malek Bensmail tracks the daily discussions, debates and despair in one of his home country’s most vocal anti-establishment newspapers.
Exactly a decade after delivering The Big Game (Le Grand Jeu), a vivid portrayal of the ill-fated attempts of oppositional politician Ali Benflis in dislodging Algeria's long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the polls in 2004, filmmaker Malek Bensmail returns with a follow-up of sorts set amidst yet another electoral stand-off between the two men in Checks and Balances. Rather than zeroing in on Ali Benflis' second run for president however, Bensmail has stepped sideways and chosen to focus on the how the elections were covered by El Watan, an independent French-language daily which has long proved to be one of the most outspoken critics of Bouteflika's regime.
Despite being filmed mostly inside El Watan's newsroom, Checks and Balances is a gripping and insightful documentary throughout, as Bensmail cannily captures the angst and schisms in Algerian society through the endless discussions, debates and thinly veiled despair of journalists working against the political sleaze dooming their country's democracy again to abject failure. While of a much lower budget and narrower scope, Checks and Balances could very well be seen as a more politically engaged Algerian equivalent of Page One: Inside the New York Times. Having managed a sustained and still extending festival run after its bow in Locarno — its latest stop being the Festival de 3 Continents, a fitting platform given the Nantes-based event's ever-reliable dedication to activist cinema from the Maghreb and beyond — Bensmail's film definitely merits interest and exposure beyond Europe after its release in France in January.
Plus ça change. That's a phrase which could very well be used to describe Bensmail's subject milieu. In The Big Game, Bouteflika was seen securing 85 per cent of the vote to Benflis' 6.4 per cent; this time round, the chasm remains, with the score slightly narrowing down to 81-12 — even with the ailing incumbent, now in his late 70s, having made few public appearances on the campaign. Casting aside possible electoral irregularities, Bouteflika's stunning victories are mostly seen as the result of his coterie's control of the Algerian mass media. This is most likely Bensmail's starting point in choosing a newspaper as his subject in Checks and Balances, as he charts a near-sisyphian struggle which Albert Camus — who was born in Algeria, after all — would probably appreciate.
Checks and Balances begins with a view of Algiers seen from a downhill-moving funicular. As the distant skyline gives way to fleeting glances of houses beside the paths of the télépherique — notably most of them with their televisions on — a thunderous voiceover comes in: "I'm the representative of the Algerian people, and no institution could eat me for breakfast." The film then quickly cuts to a newspaper printing plant, before cutting again to a close-up of a pair of running feet on a treadmill. The disembodied voice and feet, as it will later be shown, belong to Omar Belhouchet, who left the government-owned newspaper El Moudjahid ("The Holy Warrior") to establish El Watan ("The Homeland"), a daily devoted to the coverage of independent (read dissident) voices in Algeria.
Having overseen nearly three decades of overt and covert oppression by the government and attacks from Algeria's fundamentalist groups, Belhouchet is indeed the man who shapes El Watan with an ideal (thus the proclamation) and keeps driving it forward (thus the running). While Belhouchet is seen here chairing editorial meetings and overseeing the construction of El Watan's yet-uncompleted new offices, Bensmail's major protagonists here are actually the journalists. Working with the most basic resources and with the specter of persecution hovering slightly over them, they plough on despite knowing how their rigorous efforts could hardly steer Algeria's political destiny away from yet another foregone conclusion.
Embedding himself within El Watan's newsroom, Bensmail manages to capture this rapturous mix of conscientious labor and gallows humor. There are big rows about political ideology, and pedantic stand-offs over the use of a word in a headline; there are the discussions over what goes onto Page One in story conferences, and sharp arguments about the details in an obituary. While external circumstances occasionally make their way into the frame — journalist Mustapha Benfodil's reporting on the ground and his participation in a pro-democracy demonstration, or an aged independence fighter seeking help at the newsroom for his problems — Checks and Balances is riveting enough with what's happening indoors.
While quite a few people get a say here, one of the documentary's central relationship is the running, half-in-jest feud between two staff writers. Throughout the film, the left-leaning firebrand Hacene Ouali and the sarcastic, religious Hassan Moali clash, make up, and then clash some more in meetings, over lunch and at their desks. In one of the documentary's funniest scenes — something which could have come out of one of those Carl Bernstein newsroom conversations in All the President's Men — Ouali attempts to grandstand Moali by proclaiming how "contradictions help society advance," before being immediately put into place by his editor for having failed to submit a story on time. It's a hilarious but profound illustration of the tension and paradoxes at work in El Watan, and also a mix which makes Checks and Balances a vigorous record of the press at work.