control

Control Room

Provost's Film Series

November 8, 2004

 

The Eve of War

Control Room is a modest film—low budget, unpretentious, even amateurish in some of its techniques.  But it is hard to find a documentary with more provocative timing.  In 2003 Jehane Noujaim, a 29-year-old Arab-American director, started a documentary about Al Jazeera, the first independent satellite news channel in the Arab world.  Aware that the channel was often condemned by the American administration, Noujaim knew that Al Jazeera was both popular and incendiary in the Middle East.  Her father in Egypt was a faithful viewer, yet several Arab governments bristled at criticism from Al Jazeera and often sought to block its signal. Abdullah Schleifer, a journalist and professor at the American University in Cairo, arranged for Noujaim to have access to Al Jazeera, and she and her crew were there in the weeks prior to the bombing of Baghdad in March 2003.  The film lets us watch as the Al Jazeera reporters craft their stories about the American war campaign.

 

Al Jazeera and the Mirage of Media

Al Jazeera was launched in 1996, and by now some 40 million Arabs view the channel each day.  The station's headquarters are located in Doha, Qatar, a small peninsular nation on the eastern border of Saudi Arabia, about 700 miles from Baghdad.  Twenty miles from the Al Jazeera headquarters, the United States Central Command is the primary media outlet for reports from the American military.  Control Room juxtaposes scenes from the production room at Al Jazeera with military briefings and interviews at "CentCom."  Far from just a glimpse at the inside of a production control room, this is a portrait of rival sources fighting for control of world opinions.

Noujaim's film has won high praise for its balance and restraint, even though some critics have wished that the film probed even further into the issues ignored by the mainstream media.   Based in one of the most "progressive" countries in the Middle East (Qater has an elected council and allows women to vote), Al Jazeera often arranges for Israeli and American spokespersons to present their viewpoints, a decision that leads to charges that it offers "American propaganda." On the other hand, the Arab station has been fiercely condemned by the Bush administration as "Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece." Donald Rumsfeld and other administration officials insist that Al Jazeera deliberately fakes images of casualties in order to incite anti-American sentiment.  Perhaps, as one Arab reporter in the film observes,  "this word 'objectivity' is almost a mirage."

 

Broadcasting Violence

Al Jazeera's regular broadcast of wartime casualties has been a major point of contention.  Do such images of bloody corpses inflame viewers and insult the dignity of the fallen?  For their part, Al Jazeera reporters defend their broadcasts by declaring that they are only trying to show the horrors and the reality of war.   As the insurgence throughout Iraq has grown, Al Jazeera has sparked even greater debate by broadcasting pictures of the hostages threatened with beheadings.  By granting worldwide media coverage to the kidnappers, does Al Jazeera empower the terrorists and inspire more violence?  Or is portraying the dangers confronting westerners living in Iraq, the brutality of the kidnappers, and the heart of their complaints against the West an important journalistic obligation?  As the film makes clear, the Bush administration has devoted considerable energy to challenging Al Jazeera's integrity and judgment.  Consistently angered by Al Jazeera, President Bush chose to slight the channel by distributing his apology for the Abu Ghiraib prison scandal through lesser-known Arab stations.

 

Jehane Noujaim and Her “Characters”

Born in Egypt, Jehane Noujaim came to the United States as a young woman, graduated from Milton Academy in Massachusetts, and then earned her college degree from Harvard.  After a couple small budget films, she won notoriety for Startup.com, a documentary about her roommate's ventures in the high-tech business.

Despite her efforts to understand the conflict and to listen to multiple perspectives, it is obvious that the war between America and Iraq disturbed Noujaim—not just the violence itself, but the treatment of the war by the press.  "I was obviously upset with the death of Iraqis," she admits, "just as I was with the deaths of Americans during the war."  This film unmasks the "spin" on both the American and Arab sides.  During the early days of the American invasion of Iraq C-SPAN would broadcast each morning several selections of both BBC and Al Jazeera newscasts, allowing American viewers glimpses at rival interpretations of the events in Iraq.  As those broadcasts and Noujaim's film makes clear, Al Jazeera reporters were captive to their own wishful thinking about the Iraqi resistance.  They hid from their viewers what seemed inevitable to the West—that the Iraqi resistance was crumbling and that the American troops would soon be in the center of Baghdad.  On the other hand, the film tries to reveal how the American military endeavors to manipulate the news—using the Jessica Lynch story to "bury the lead," staging the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, and hiding the reality of civilian deaths.

"I tried to be as fair as possible in my portrayal of the people in Jazeera and Central Command," Noujaim states, "though audiences tend to identify with one character or another.  I did not intend for this film to be an endorsement of either Al Jazeera or the Western news media.  It's true that I follow three sympathetic characters who don't fit the stereotypes of wild-eyed pan-Arab propagandists on the one side, or a robotic military press officer on the other.  My loyalties are to the characters as they scramble to make sense of the war and present their points of view."

Those "real life" characters remain enigmatic.  What do we make of Samir Khader, Al Jazeera's chain-smoking senior producer, who responds cynically that people want "victory" rather than "truth"?  Is he serious or satirical when he claims that he would gladly accept a job from Fox News in order to chase the "American dream"?  How do we respond to the deep anguish of the Arab reporters who blame the Americans for the death of one of their colleagues?  Did American bombs indeed target the Al Jazeera reporter to suppress the Arabic station on the eve of Baghdad's fall?  The film leaves us to wonder if this death is a tragic misfortune that comes when reporters enter a war zone—or a brutal calculation in the game for control of the news cycle.  What do we make of American Lieutenant Josh Rushing, who good-naturedly explains the American military perspective to Arab reporters and seems willing to listen and learn himself?  Rushing's story becomes all the more intriguing when we learn that he was demoted by the military shortly after the release of the film.  Did that demotion come in order to crush his capacity for empathy? As Rick Groen writes in the British newspaper Globe and Mail, Control Room "shines its brightest light on a truth that war and warmongers so ferociously ignore: Look hard into the others' camp and what you will likely see is yourself."