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6 reviews, 21 user ratings

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Control Room
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by Mel Valentin

"Insightful, if limited, take on a key media source in the Middle East."
4 stars

"Control Room," a new documentary directed by Jehane Noujaim (""), is a behind-the-scenes look at Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language, independent satellite news channel that’s been often criticized by the Bush administration for its anti-American bias (Al-Jazeera has been described as the Arabic equivalent of the FOX News Channel). "Control Room," however, is more a snapshot in time, covering the weeks bracketing the United States’ invasion of Iraq and the rapid defeat of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, and ending with the symbolic destruction of Saddam’s statue in a Baghdad square and President Bush’s now infamous claim of the “end of major combat operations” in Iraq aboard the "USS Lincoln" (complete with the “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging in the background). The documentary’s only shortcoming, if it has one, is the absence of significant footage from Al-Jazeera’s actual newscasts (difficult, given that they’re broadcast only in Arabic) or from Al-Jazeera’s call-in show, which is beamed to thirteen different countries in the region.

Control Room concentrates primarily on the reporters, producers, and support staff located at Al-Jazeera’s Doha, Qatar headquarters (Qatar is a small oil-rich, peninsular country surrounded by the Persian Gulf), as well as the United States Central Command (CentCom) also located nearby. CentCom essentially operates a media/public relations bureau in Qatar, with international media representatives waiting for battlefield updates spun to favor the U.S. military and its string of successes and minimize the consequences of war (i.e., Iraqi civilian casualties), That spin is also meant to carefully avoid disclosing information that could be used by Saddam Hussein’s forces, as one U.S. military spokesman reminds the reporters.

Most of the screen time, however, is saved for two Al-Jazeera reporters, Hassan Ibrahim, an English-educated, former BBC reporter, and Samir Khader, who also speaks English fluently, and who, at one point, wistfully discusses his respect and admiration for the United States, as well as his desire to send his children to be educated here. Both men speak out against the imminent war and its aftermath for similar reasons: the disastrous impact on Iraqi civilians, regardless of the precision bombing extolled by the U.S. military, as well as the potential humiliation suffered by Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East through the hubristic decision to invade Iraq. Both men question the U.S. arguments for invading Iraq, i.e., “weapons of mass destruction,” “regime change,” and “Western-style democracy,” and not surprisingly find them lacking. Neither man expresses admiration or respect for Saddam Hussein, but continually return to the impact on civilians, the destruction of lives and infrastructure in the service of (apparently) abstract ideals. Their focus on Iraqi civilians naturally leads to Al-Jazeera’s focus on showing the Iraqi dead and injured. Donald Rumsfield appears several times to dispute Al-Jazeera’s decision to show Iraqi civilians (presumably, he understands the incendiary nature of showing the true costs of warfare), but saves most of his opprobrium for Al-Jazeera’s controversial decision to show dead and captured American POWs on-air. In a television appearance, Rumsfield argues that Al-Jazeera violated the terms of the Geneva Conventions by airing the POW footage, but, as Ibrahim quickly responds, leaves himself open to a counter-accusation regarding the Arab and Muslim prisoners in Guantanomo Bay, Cuba.

Control Room’s director, Jehane Noujaim, does attempt to move beyond U.S. spin control by alternating her focus from Al-Jazeera to a sympathetic American spokesman, Lt. Joshua Rushing. As the documentary unfolds, the audience follows Rushing’s personal trajectory from articulate military spokesman effortlessly spinning the talking points of the day to a more enlightened person aware of the moral and political complexities of the war itself and its participants (willing and unwilling). Control Room captures Lt. Rushing in moments of doubt and uncertainty, but it also captures him attempting a real dialogue with members of Al-Jazeera, specifically Hassan Ibrahim. Rushing, however, admits to surprise at all the pleasant Arab people he’s met since his arrival in Qatar. It might be an honest statement, but it also points the reality that most Americans haven’t met Arabs or Muslims, either here or abroad and that their perceptions and understandings of Arabs or Muslims is based on second-hand knowledge (it also signals how divorced U.S. policy toward the Middle East is divorced from the facts on the ground). Rushing’s real epiphany occurs when, after viewing the video footage of the dead and captured POWs, and being overcome with repulsion and anger, he realizes that he felt neither the night before when Al-Jazeera showed footage of injured and dead Iraqis. He recognizes his failure of empathy to be an obstacle to understanding Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, Rushing appears to be the only open-minded member of the U.S. military’s media staff. Another spokesman is seen being interviewed by a pretty (if vacuous) female reporter as Baghdad falls to the U.S. military. He inserts a standard line about the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers for democracy and freedom during the invasions, but after the interview concludes, he seemingly congratulates himself for the insincere patriotic line (the reporter joins in congratulating him). That scene is only one example of the obvious, if unspoken and unacknowledged bias by the U.S. media to support the invasion. While Al-Jazeera is criticized for airing photos and video footage of Iraqi casualties, American reporters are shown in near-orgiastic pleasure as the bombs fall in and around Baghdad, generating fiery explosions and sending up plumes of smoke. Given their relative youthfulness, it’s no surprise that these reporters respond to the video footage as if they’re watching a video game, not real footage of bombs killing real human beings, not virtual ones.

More importantly, the lack of empathy by American reporters in this situation points to another, larger journalistic failure, the ability to see their own pro-American bias, as well as their acquiescence to follow the ground rules, as set by the military, on how and what to report (whether in the field, as so-called “embedded” reporters, or at media centers, as at CentCom). Their acquiescence is at its worst where Al-Jazeera, intent aside, is at its best, in showing the human cost of war, in showing the consequences of modern warfare. The U.S. government’s control over the media is directly related to media coverage of the Vietnam War. Subsequent administrations learned a valuable lesson in the aftermath of the Vietnam War: hide the true costs, whether it’s Iraqi casualties or even our own (i.e., U.S. war dead and injured). Media reports from Vietnam obviously influenced, if not fueled, the anti-war efforts at home. The concern about negatively affecting public opinion (and shaping public policy) shouldn’t convince the U.S. media to abdicate their responsibility to report the news from as many perspectives as possible, rather than attempt to mollify this or any other administration in Washington, D.C.

Control Room also raises questions by examining the death of an Al-Jazeera reporter in Baghdad near the end of the war. Al-Jazeera relayed the location of their reporters to the U.S. military, yet one of their reporters (as well as an Abu Dhabi reporter) was killed in what appeared to be a targeted air strike. Coincidence, mistake, intentional? Control Room doesn’t take a position on U.S. intentions, but it does show us footage of the reporter moments before his death, staring blankly into the camera, in obvious fear and terror. After his death, the Al-Jazeera staff meets with the Western media and, to their credit, say little to blame the United States, and instead focus on the reporter’s life and contributions. It’s a genuine moment, one that is likely to move any member of the audience to sympathy and anger. That, at least on its, own, is a first step toward for American audiences to see the human faces and personalities behind Al-Jazeera, but also Arabs and Muslims living in the United States and in the Middle East.

The reporters and staff of Al-Jazeera certainly make their sympathies clear, and thus accept their own pro-Arab bias and in shaping the stories they report on, but they also seem to accept a larger, journalistic purpose to bring something approximating objective truth to their Arab audience. Only last week, the American-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, closed Al-Jazeera’s Iraqi bureau for a 30-day period.

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originally posted: 05/25/05 04:45:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 San Francisco Film Festival. For more in the 2004 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
This film is listed in our political documentary series. For more in the Political Documentary series, click here.

User Comments

10/07/05 mohanad al shaar it was a great movie about a very great channel 5 stars
6/30/05 Phil M. Aficionado See it, listen to the commentary of the 2 Al Jazeera staff member central characters. A+ 5 stars
1/31/05 Jim Riveting; might be considered "propaganda" by rigid idealogues. 5 stars
12/30/04 DM A must-see film if ever there was one 5 stars
11/08/04 james Incredible film that brilliantly shows media biasis. 5 stars
9/18/04 Graham Some amazing journalism, though not quite a satisfying film narrative 4 stars
7/19/04 M Lin Consider the complexity of information sources, exercise critical thinking. 5 stars
7/08/04 Bill Valuable insights for US citizens before 11/2 vote 5 stars
6/20/04 Russ Sims A refreshing piece of filmmaking about war as seen by the eyes of the so-called "enemy" 5 stars
6/12/04 Boombah Baby You Americans need to start realizing that unpopular truth is not propaganda. 5 stars
6/11/04 NICK HABIB Outstanding movie that prompts the mind to think rather then just absorb 5 stars
5/22/04 steve Liberal Propaganda??? 2 stars
4/26/04 stenobabe provocative, disturbing 5 stars
4/05/04 Giulia Cox Subtle, provoking. NOT a polemic; rather, an intelligent look at unfolding events. 5 stars
2/25/04 John F A should be manditory viewing in HS gov't classes. 5 stars
2/24/04 Cheron McGuffey This film is an eye opener - to understand the human cost of this war look here. 5 stars
2/22/04 Paulus A must see for everyone, especially every American! 5 stars
2/20/04 Andrea Valenti We talked about this film for hours-- A MUST SEE!! 5 stars
2/09/04 Alec Therins What is truth? What is Propaganda? What is an unbias view? 4 stars
1/31/04 John Langford Great film, worth seeing twice. 5 stars
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  DVD: 26-Oct-2004



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