Most Americans’ view of Al Jazeera, the Arab cable network, probably derives from the Bush administration’s repeated denunciation of the station as a mouthpiece of Islamic extremism and a virtual ally of terrorism, a source not of objective information but of ideologically-controlled deception. This important documentary by Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim offers a salutary corrective to the official U.S. line. Judicious and revealing, if not as complete a portrait as one might wish, the film, set at the beginning of the Iraq war, deserves wider viewing than it will probably receive. But it may have a significant impact on those willing to see it.
The title of “Control Room” has a double meaning. It refers, of course, to the Al Jazeera studio, where we see the bustle and debate within the operation as the American invasion unfolds. But it also relates to the second major locale of the picture, the “coalition of the willing” information center called Centcom, where representatives of the world media have congregated to get reports on the war, because what becomes clear is that Centcom is intended as a means of managing, or controlling, press coverage of the conflict to an unprecedented degree. Indeed, as one contrasts Al Jazeera, whose reporters–many of them BBC veterans–express conflicting viewpoints even while their innate Arab sympathies can never entirely be overcome, with the coalition operation, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that it’s the latter that tends, with one major exception, more in the direction of propaganda. Footage with correspondents stationed at Centcom demonstrates how they often felt frustrated with the situation–complaining, for instance, when the Jessica Lynch story was treated at length while information on troop movements into Baghdad was withheld, or, more humorously, when the famous “deck of cards” with photos of the most wanted Iraqis wasn’t made immediately available to them. (Given recent events, moreover, it’s surely the supreme irony when Defense Secretary Rumsfeld attacks Al Jazeera by remarking that the truth will always come out, or President Bush piously intones platitudes about how prisoners must always be treated humanely.)
There is, however, one fellow at Centcom who breaks the mold–Lt. Josh Rushing, an open-faced (and open-minded) Marine who serves as a press liaison and genuinely tries to understand all sides. One of the highpoints of the picture, on the coalition side at least, is watching this good-natured, capable young man willingly debate Arab reporters on issues that divide them and gradually come to express his own unhappiness with himself for being more upset with footage of American casualties than that of Iraqi dead and wounded.
At the other end of the divide, “Control Room” introduces us to Sameer Khadar, a chain-smoking Al Jazeera producer who quietly explains that his station is designed ro promote reform and democracy in the Arab world by providing honest news and balanced discussion. One can feel his pain (and, to a certain extent, disbelief) at what is happening in Iraq but at the same time admire his professionalism, as when he castigates an underling for providing him with an American interview subject who turns out, to his horror, to be a radical ideologue rather than a serious analyst. The network is also embodied in Hassan Ibrahim, a chubby reporter who expresses confidence in the ultimate wisdom of the American people and constitution and has built a nice connection with Rushing by the close, and the unnamed translation who shows, even as he solemnly translates statements of Bush and Rumsfeld, shows his off-screen disbelief in their words.
The real centerpiece of Noujaim’s film comes in its extended treatment of the incident in which Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office, along with another location in northern Iraq, was struck by American missiles, resulting in the death of a reporter. Claims by the U.S. government that the bombing was inadvertent aren’t directly dismissed, but the reaction among members of the Al Jazeera staff make their doubts clear, and you’ll probably feel the same way. The dramatic power of this episode is reason enough to feature it so prominently, of course, but it also epitomizes the documentary’s major theme–that of the mistrust and misunderstanding that divide the American from the Arab world, even its most educated and sophisticated elements. Fortunately, in figures like Rushing, Khadar and Ibrahim, “Control Room” also offers a hope that the division can be overcome. As a result, despite some unfortunate omissions–one would dearly love to know, for instance, the circumstances in which Al Jazeera was founded, and the way in which it’s financed–the film does a significant service. The fact that it’s also well put together, proving fascinating and engaging as well as simply informative, is a further plus. Tune it in, and it may tell you something you didn’t know–and entertain you as well.