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Through Different Eyes

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
05.21.2004 | FILM

Control Room
Directed by Jehane Noujaim

The most memorable moments in Jehane Noujaim's Control Room are also some of the film's most banal. Al Jazeera correspondent Tariq Ayoub is sitting atop the roof of the network's Baghdad offices on the morning of April 8, 2003, waiting to report on that day's bombardment. Baghdad is quiet. Surrounded by sandbags, Ayoub looks glum in his flak vest and helmet. His cameraman sits opposite, panning from the gray sky down to Ayoub and back again before switching off the camera, simply because there is nothing yet to film.

What burns the scene into memory is what happened next. An hour after the wordless footage was beamed to Al Jazeera's Doha studios, a U.S. jet slammed two missiles into the building, killing Ayoub and the cameraman. The Pentagon would call the bombing an unfortunate accident (perhaps the pilot mistook the building for the Chinese embassy) but the excuse was transparent, as Al Jazeera had provided Washington with the exact coordinates of its Baghdad offices before the war. The bombing was widely construed as a warning that the U.S. would play hardball in the battle to control Iraq's "information environment." In case anybody missed the memo, it was redelivered later that day when U.S. artillery struck the Baghdad offices of Abu Dhabi television, and then yet again when U.S. tanks shelled the international journalist sardine-can known as the Palestine Hotel, killing two and completing the notorious 4/8/03 hat trick.

More than a year later, the Committee to Protect Journalists continues to report incidents of U.S. soldiers shooting at or otherwise hassling foreign journalists in Iraq, and lists the country as the most dangerous place on Earth to practice the profession. The April killing of an Al Iraqiya tv reporter at the hands of U.S. troops is just another example that the threat comes from both sides.

So when Colin Powell requested a meeting with Sheik Hamad bin Jassim late last month, the Qatari foreign minister must have felt a little like one of Darth Vader's admirals being summoned to give a progress report. Despite continuous grumblings and spits of rage from the Pentagon, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, by far the most important player in Arab media with 40 million viewers, has persisted in showing a side of the war that the U.S. government would prefer go unseen. What Arabs see as the honest reporting of a brutal imperial occupation, the U.S. government sees as intolerable evidence of anti-American bias that undermines the occupation and inflames the Arab street from Cairo to Damascus. (How much the network actually heeds the latest American warning is yet to be seen, though a senior Al Jazeera editor recently sent a controversial memo to staff requesting that violent images be "toned down" and edited for "balance.")

Jehane Noujaim's Control Room isn't particularly interested in the extent or roots of the network's alleged bias. Though any number of Washington wonks would have been happy to expound upon its financial dependence on the Qatari government, its proud role as the last refuge of pan-Arab nationalism, its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and the two-faced nature of its domestic and international broadcasts (there are really two Al Jazeeras), Noujaim doesn't engage in deep background. As with 2001's Startup.com, she instead lets the main subjects explain themselves in a story that begins with the first frame. The result is a sympathetic and personal video journal of life at the "Arab CNN" that is at turns fascinating and plodding, necessary and na´ve.

Control Room follows the first five weeks of the war through the eyes of Al Jazeera employees scuttling between the network's studios in Doha and the nearby U.S. Central Command (Centcom) media center. From these two air-conditioned environments 700 miles from Baghdad, Noujaim captures the off-camera ruminations, newsroom hustles and downtime banter of Al Jazeera staff and the rest of the Doha hack pack as it waits for the bombs to start falling. In the subsequent scramble to cover the war's big stories--the launch of "shock and awe," the Jessica Lynch pseudo-drama, the seige of Baghdad and the capture of the first American POWs--Al Jazeera employees prove more similar than not to their counterparts in the Western media. Many of them came to the network from elite media like the BBC; a majority holds Western passports. The caricature of Al Jazeera as a jihadi group with high production values is an early casualty of the film, which reveals a professional, if Arab nationalist, operation with arguably less screeching than is found on U.S. cable news. Even the dutiful CentCom press officer, Lt. Josh Rushing, comes to admit that the establishment American media does not have much on Al Jazeera in the way of "objectivity."

As in Startup.com, Noujaim employs the small handheld cameras, bug-on-the-rug verite and on-scene interviews favored by her colleague and mentor D.A. Pennebaker. And again the major flaw of this approach protrudes early: Follow people around with a camera all day, and they're going to perform. Like the dot-com entrepreneurs of Noujaim's acclaimed debut, one occasionally gets the feeling the principals are dissembling. When Al Jazeera senior producer Sameerr Khader chews out an employee for booking an American "conspiracy nut" on his show instead of a "serious" analyst, you can't help but wince at the credulity of Noujaim's camera. Excluding criticism of the Qatari royal family, no view is unwelcome on Al Jazeera, whose very slogan is "the opinion and the counter opinion."

Most of the film is harder to argue with. This is especially true of the primary Al Jazeera footage that Noujaim here brings to American audiences for the first time. Included are the network's broadcasts of the tragic-comic Iraqi tv interrogations of American POWs ("I fix broke stuff," explains one dazed teenage mechanic) as well as the first pictures of dead U.S. soldiers, which Noujaim intercuts with Donald Rumsfeld's outraged response invoking the Geneva Conventions. She also captures the real-time counter response to Rumsfeld's statement in the Al Jazeera newsroom. "The Geneva Conventions?! What about Guantanamo?" snorts Sudanese reporter Hassan Ibrahim, shocked that the Americans had the gall to invoke international law.

The film also contains the images for which the network is regularly berated in Washington and Baghdad's Green Zone: dead and mutilated Iraqi civilians, their grieving relatives and furious compatriots. The Defense Department claims such images are either false or "lack context," but unless these Iraqis are highly skilled actors on the Al Jazeera payroll, it's hard to see what context is missing from an old woman in front of a bombed house, screaming, "If this is Bush's democracy, then we don't want it!" or a boy's intestines spilling onto a grimy hospital sheet. These are the images of the war America is actually fighting, and Noujaim is to be applauded for bringing them to American screens, where they should have been all along.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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