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Film Review: "Control Room"

By Maureen Clare Murphy,

28 July, 2004
Electronic Iraq

"This isn't just a military operation; it's also a media operation," a British journalist scolds an uncooperative U.S. Central Command press officer in Control Room, a documentary on the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera's coverage of the beginning of the Iraq war. A particularly troubling issue presented in the film is how the lines between media and military are blurred by the U.S. administration during wartime, demonstrated by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld discussing how the U.S. government hopes to change Al-Jazeera's coverage as though doing so is part of U.S. military strategy.

Director Jehane Noujaim's footage includes an Al Jazeera head, in the days before the aerial bombardment of Baghdad on March 20, 2003, explaining that he had notified the U.S. military of the station's whereabouts, giving them the exact coordinates of their Baghdad headquarters. However, weeks later, a U.S. plane drops a missile directly onto Al Jazeera's headquarters, killing Jordanian journalist Tarek Ayoub (Al-Jazeera's stations were also bombed by the U.S. during the invasion of Afghanistan). That same day, U.S. forces killed three more reporters when it attacked Abu Dhabi T.V.'s location, and fired upon the Palestine hotel, which was housing many journalists. We see the reactions of the Al-Jazeera staff to these casualties, and because we've gotten to know the satellite channel's affable journalists through the documentary, the loss becomes personal for us as well.

In the quest to win over "the hearts and minds" of Arabs, a phrase that is repeated over and over by the U.S. administration and media, the U.S. government has waged a public relations campaign against the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. Upset when Al-Jazeera broadcasts graphic images of dead and wounded Iraqis, Rumsfeld declares in a series of press conferences that such images provoke anti-American incitement, and "aren't helpful." What is easily discerned from the film is the very thinly veiled ignorance, which flirts with racism, that the U.S. administration demonstrates when pressuring Al-Jazeera to remove such footage from its reports; that Arabs won't have a problem with U.S. involvement in the Middle East so long as they don't see the visible results.

The U.S. government is certainly not ignorant of the popularity of Al-Jazeera, the region's first independent satellite channel that is watched by 40 million viewers worldwide who enjoy its high production quality, credible reporting, and provocative debate programming (Al-Jazeera's motto is "the opinion and the other opinion"). While Rumsfeld says that Al-Jazeera airs propaganda, Al-Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader insists that the channel broadcasts images of Iraqi victims of American bombs because "We wanted to show that any war has a human cost."

Indeed, the idea of Iraqi human cost is all but dissolved in the U.S. mainstream media, which focuses on operations, U.S. death tolls, and the Bush party line. Noujaim smartly brings viewers to the point where they realize that there are two different wars that are being presented - one by Al-Jazeera and the other by FOX News, which is often, albeit inaccurately, described as Al-Jazeera's equivalent in the U.S. (Al-Jazeera's journalistic values are much higher than FOX News, which peddles right-wing opinion dressed up as "fair and balanced" news). But Noujaim doesn't bang the viewer over the head with this conclusion, instead spending time on the internal conflicts Al-Jazeera corresponds have with their loyalties as Arabs and Muslims, and their desire to produce objective journalism.

Control Room transcends T.V. newsmagazine documentary filmmaking and leaps into feature film territory because it explores the human side of war reporting, without relying on emotional exploitation as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is apt to do. Dependant on the briefings at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar, reporters form relationships with the U.S. military press officers, and with each other. NBC correspondent David Shuster confirms that Al-Jazeera's office always has the best food, and the nicest guys. Military officer John Rushing engages in frequent debates with the battle-weary, yet good-natured Al-Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim. As the end of "major combat" comes to a close, and reporters and military officers are reassigned, it is clear that their relationship has morphed into something closer to friendship.

While Noujaim's own anti-war biases are clear, like that of the Al-Jazeera journalists she profiles, she strengthens the credibility of her film by including complicated Americans who can't be reduced to one kind of characterization. Lt. Rushing, the blue-eyed military press liason with a Southern accent, is frustrating at first when he regurgitates the tired line that American soldiers are in Iraq to liberate Iraqi citizens, who are sure to welcome U.S. forces with open arms. But as the film progresses, Rushing expresses candid feelings of horror towards images of dead Iraqis, prompting him to say that they make him "hate war." And viewers see Rushing asking Ibrahim his opinion on various global issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its impact on global politics, and it seems as though Rushing is genuinely interested in learning different perspectives than the one he is commanded to give at press conferences. ( reports that Rushing will be leaving the military after being ordered not to give interviews or comment on the film.)

Noujaim's Control Room is a fascinating look at how Al-Jazeera covered the war while simultaneously dealing with the conflicts of Arab nationalism and objective journalism, and being targeted by the U.S. military. With time, it will become clearer the hypocrisy of the U.S.'s efforts to influence the independent satellite channel's coverage, considering that Al-Jazeera brings to the viewing public debate on subjects that aren't touched by state-sponsored media, pushing the very reform that the U.S. says it is so bent on bringing to the region. Here is where we have U.S. arrogance at its finest - Rumsfeld devotes press conference time to talk about his desire to change Al-Jazeera while in Abu Ghraib U.S. soldiers are taking digital photos of themselves humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners -- images that undermine U.S. credibility in a way that no Al-Jazeera report would ever be able to do.

Now that it has come to light that Rumsfeld has long known of the systematic abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees, "given the flood of complaints and reports directed to his office over the last year," as The New York Times asserts, the demands placed on Al-Jazeera by the U.S. government to include less "anti-coalition" reporting is all the more inexcusable. When attempting to influence the perception of the U.S. in the Arab world, and the rest of the world for that matter, the U.S. would do well to realize that the actions done in this country's name are what affect the way people think about the U.S. Shooting the messenger doesn't help win "hearts and minds;" it is actual U.S. policy that sways opinion. The people of Al-Jazeera realize that, but for now the notion seems to be lost on the U.S. administration.