Control Room

This weekend, I stopped by my local theatre in the hopes of seeing Fahrenheit 9/11 and both to my dismay and pleasure, every single screening was sold out even though it was showing on dual screens. The “return of the documentary,” indeed.

So I ambled down the road and checked out another film, Jehame Noujaim’s Control Room (2004), a look behind the scenes at the famed Arabic television station, Al-Jazeera. I’ve pretty much avoided all mainstream coverage of the war in Iraq from the get-go and sought alternative news sources from international reports and human rights groups rather than embedded broadcasts from Fox or CNN, but seeing Control Room underscored how slanted even my perception of the station was, given the Bush administration’s constant attempts to vilify it. Donald Rumsfeld has publicly referred to it, among other things, as “Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece.” In fact, the station has been banned by several Arab governments for its open criticism of their policies, and its staff is not a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists with cameras, but many ex-BBC reporters and Western-trained journalists and entrepreneurial producers who praise the US Constitution and dream of sending their kids to American universities.

Al-Jazeera (which means “the island”) is widely admired in the journalistic community as well, and regularly interacts with American, British, and international reporters. It is the first independent television station in the Arabic world (although it’s still partially-subsidized by the government of Qatar), and watched by over 50 million people, regularly featuring point/counterpoint discussions and debates fueled by the station’s motto: “The opinion…and the other opinion.” While it’s arguable how well it adheres to Western myths of journalistic objectivity (and the same concern could be directed toward the US corporate-owned media), it’s a pioneering effort in the Middle East, determined to cover and debate international events for Arabic viewers, offering them their own news source rather than leaving them to fish for coverage of their own region from the BBC or other European news agencies.

Egyptian-American director Noujaim’s previous film was Startup.com, and she maintains her cinema veritÈ approach by observing a few individuals and never inserting her own voice or commentary (aside from the film’s selection and arrangement of material). In this case, the Al-Jazeera individuals include producer Sameer Khader and journalist Hassan Ibrahim, who attended grade school with Osama bin Laden and also shares my alma mater, the University of Arizona. He has over 25 years of journalistic experience, and when he tells an American journalist he used to work for the BBC (in fact, he used to head the BBC Arab News Service), the reporter replies, “Of course, everybody who works for the BBC eventually ends up working for Al-Jazeera.”

The third figure Noujaim highlights is US Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a mild-mannered and intelligent officer who tries to toe the party line, but is quick to engage Ibrahim in philosophical debates that are surprisingly even-handed and respectful. Rushing even admits to some of his own compromises, describing how difficult it is not to “spin” a news story when he feels a specific reporter has a particular agenda. “It benefits Al-Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because that’s their audience,” he says, “just like Fox plays to American patriotism, for the exact same reason, because that’s their audience. The big thing for my generation is for these two perspectives–my perspective, the Western perspective, and the Arab perspective–to understand each other better because, truly, the two worlds are colliding at a rapid rate.” Rushing and Ibrahim’s talks make it clear that many Westerners assume the invasion is about Saddam Hussein, while most Arabs assume the invasion is about fortifying Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

And Rushing is also eloquent when describing the now-famous tension between the US media never showing severe images of violence and Al-Jazeera’s propensity to do so:

“The night they showed the P.O.W.’s and the dead [US] soldiers–Al-Jazeera showed them. It was powerful, because America doesn’t show those kind of images. Most of the time America doesn’t show those images. They showed the American soldiers on the tile floor. It was revolting. It made me sick to my stomach. What hit me [was] that the night before there had been a bombing in Basra, and Al-Jazeera had shown images of the people, and they were equally, if not more, horrifying images. I had never seen it. I thought to myself, wow, that’s gross. That’s bad. Then I went away and was eating dinner or something; it didn’t affect me as much… And people in the Al-Jazeera office must have felt the way I was feeling that night and it upset me on a profound level that I wasn’t as bothered as much the night before. It makes me hate war.”

Mostly, the film alternates between Rushing and the press conferences at CentCom (the US central communications center 10 miles from Al-Jazeera) and Khader’s bustling newsroom. Filmed in a few weeks last year, the film covers the US bombing of Al-Jazeera’s office in Baghdad, which killed one of their cameramen, Tareq Ayyoub, who was broadcasting live. Despite Pentagon claims that the killing was accidental (despite the fact that Al-Jazeera gave them the coordinates to their bureau when the invasion began), two other Arab journalists were killed the same day, causing even US reporters like CNN’s Tom Mintier to express doubts. (Additionally, Al-Jazeera’s offices in Afghanistan have been bombed twice.) The international journalists’ gathering to express their solidarity at Ayyoub’s memorial is lacerated with the pleas of his widow, who begs them over the phone to “tell the truth” in their reportage at all costs.

In this regard, it’s hard to argue with Al-Jazeera’s footage of bombed civilians climbing through the rubble of their homes. To such footage relayed in Control Room, Noujaim intercuts absurd press statements from Rumsfeld, such as: “What they do is when there’s a bomb goes down, they grab some children and women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children. It seems to me that it’s up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don’t know, and recognize that we’re dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case.”

Given the increasing scandals and disappointments that have plagued the US administration in the last few months, those last lines may prove to backfire in ways Rumsfeld never imagined. Similarly, when President Bush is questioned about US prisoners and tosses off this line for the press, the audience in my theatre gasped in astonishment: “If there is somebody captured, I expect those people to be treated humanelyÖ Just like weíre treating the prisoners that we have captured humanely.î (The film was completed before the incidents at Abu Ghraib became public.)

Control Room is a highly informative film that helps contextualize the media wars and their importance to world events of the past year. The media people it focuses on are intelligent, articulate, and observant, and the images and juxtapositions it offers provide considerably new contexts for the invasion than have been seen on American airwaves. It’s required viewing.

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