African Pictures | 2015 | 97 minutes
Stranger Says: The best film in the festival’s 2014 African Pictures section was certainly Merzak Allouache’s The Rooftops. This year, it just might be Malek Bensmail’s Checks and Balances. Both are set in the beautiful seaside city of Algiers, Algeria’s capital. The Rooftops, however, is a feature film, and Checks and Balances is not. It is instead an impressively crafted documentary about El Watan, a French-speaking pro-democracy newspaper. We get to see the reporters argue about their beliefs, editors plan for issues, and editorial meetings where the day’s events are analyzed and opinions exchanged. Everyone who works for a newspaper in Seattle should see this documentary. It will give us all some much-needed perspective. (CHARLES MUDEDE)
SIFF Says:In Checks and Balances, Algerian documentarian Malek Bensmail offers an inspiring and invigorating portrait of the press at work in the form of one of his home country’s most vocal anti-establishment newspapers, “El Watan.” Specifically, the film chronicles the paper’s coverage of the recent electoral campaign in which opposition politician Ali Benflis sought to replace Algeria’s longest-serving ruler, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose 17-year tenure is widely attributed to his party's control of the country’s mass media. (Benflis’ previous attempt was also documented by Bensmail in his 2005 film, The Big Game.) In a manner reminiscent of Page One: Inside the New York Times (SIFF 2011), Bensmail embeds himself within the “El Watan” newsroom, a fly on the wall to the journalists’ arguments large and small over everything from politics to punctuation, as well as their dedication, camaraderie, and dark humor. Particularly relevant now that journalists accused of damaging “the morale of the nation” face tough new penalties in a crackdown on investigative reporting, Checks and Balances offers thrilling proof that democracy—with all the debate, dissent, and discussion it entails—is alive and well in Algeria . . . in the press at least, if not in the presidency.
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