Review: "Control Room"
By Maureen Clare
28 July, 2004
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.
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.
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. (Salon.com reports
that Rushing will be leaving the military after being ordered not to
give interviews or comment on the film.)
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.