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A work of art that merely confirms
what one already knows may be comforting, but that doesnt broaden the scope of
ones world, and the world is certainly rich enough for constant broadening. Control
Room, a documentary about the Middle East news agency Al-Jazeera, takes a perspective
that most Americans wont share, but refusing to look at perspectives different from
ones own is a denial of larger realities.
Control Room, made by Jehane Noujaim, co-director of the wonderful Startup.com, is a much needed counterpoint for Americans in the context of Bush administration propaganda on the Iraq War. Indeed, Control Room brings along its own heavy bias in favor of Al-Jazeera, which Donald Rumsfeld calls Osama Bin-Ladens mouthpiece even as he provides his own version of American spin. While the documentarys sympathetic portrait of Al-Jazeera supplies clear evidence where Al-Jazeera is right and the American government is wrong on certain Iraqi events, the Al-Jazeera reporters interviewed admit their bias. They dont make ludicrous Fox News claims of being fair and balanced. Control Room shows how propaganda works on both sides and how the truth is often somewhere in between.
Al-Jazeera, launched in 1996, was the first independent news channel in the Middle East, and soon became the most popular news channel with over 40 million Arab viewers. Noujaim intercuts the film among several members of Al-Jazeera, including producers Sameer Khader and Deema Khatib, and the disgusted and bitter Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist who used to work for the BBC. At one point, an American reporter snidely says to him, Everyone who works for the BBC eventually works for Al-Jazeera.
Khader takes the most calm, philosophical approach to it all, asserting matter-of-factly the importance of media and propaganda in any war. He regrets the necessary involvement of cant, but begrudgingly admires how good the Americans are at it. Khatib, however, is the real cynic. He says if Fox News offered him a job, he would accept in an instant, and he plans to send his children to America one day for schooling. Hassan is the idealist. Adamant in his beliefs of American imperialism, he decries, Eventually youll have to find a solution that doesnt involve bombing someone into submission democratize or I will shoot you.
Most of the film takes place at Central Command, or CentCom, in Doha, Qatar, 700 miles from Bagdad. The film follows Bushs threat of invasion through the toppling of Saddam Hussein. From Al-Jazeeras perspective, Noujaim recalls the Bush administrations changing rationales for invading Iraq, the use of fear in the media to manipulate public opinion, Jessica Lynch, the juvenile deck of cards designating the most wanted men in Husseins regime, and the too-coincidental-to-be-accidental bombing deaths of three different Arab journalists on the same day by American planes. From Rumsfeld accusing Al-Jazeera of faking pictures of civilian deaths, Noujaim cuts to indisputable pictures of real victims from the American bombing.
At the same time, she also shows the Arabs engaging in wishful thinking about the inevitable outcome of the war. She explores the controversy of Al-Jazeera televising graphic imagery of civilian casualties and of American POWs. When Iraq finally falls, she shows the Al-Jazeera teams shocked disbelief as they try to make their emotional response correspond to what they must rationally have expected all along. Still, when an American reporter asks an Al-Jazeera spokeswoman about bias in their reporting, she cogently rebuts by asking whether the American media is biased. State Department official Nabeel Khoury says that Al-Jazeera does not hesitate to invite Americans to give their point-of-view on the network and he frequently makes use of these opportunities.
The American who gets the most attention in Control Room is press officer Lt. Rushing. A handsome, articulate, young man, he struggles to balance the American point-of-view with the multiple Arab alternatives constantly barraging him from Al-Jazeera. At one point, Rushing even admirably admits that, try as he might to resist it, he sometimes gets carried away in opposing a forceful argument and engages in inadvertent spin or exaggeration.
The Iraq War has created controversy across the political spectrum. About the outcome, Khader says pessimistically, People like victory. You dont have to justify it. Once you have it, thats it. This film was obviously made in the hope that he was wrong.
- George Wu