'Control Room': Both Sides Now
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004; Page WE39
FOR AMERICANS, mostly informed by the Pentagon and embedded American and European journalists, it was the "War in Iraq," a daily drama with attractive graphics and dramatic captions on the television. It had good guys and bad; easily identifiable moments of heroism, of conflict, of tragedy. It was a miniseries. And although families of the military were directly affected, it was another armchair campaign for most.
But for much of the Arab world and its television stations, particularly al-Jazeera, it was "Invasion of Our World." Al-Jazeera covered the scene from the ground, as opposed to safe tents or from the air. The villains were buzz-cut soldiers, the heroes were bloodied mothers screaming in front of their bomb-cratered homes and yelling at President Bush: "Where's your humanity?" Democracy came at the tip end of a missile.
Yet, al-Jazeera also presented its own dramatic hyperbole, beginning newscasts with footage of bombing victims intercut with shots of the American military. And it was just as reluctant to air ideologically inconvenient facts as its Western adversaries.
Two wars. Two culturally skewed perspectives. Neither one telling the complete truth, yet both adamant that they were. Ideological conviction gushing forth like sabotaged oil. Both sides, naturally, working closely with God.
These cultural and religious fault lines are made jarringly clear in "Control Room," Jehane Noujaim's enlightening, if structurally relaxed documentary about last year's Iraq invasion, how the Pentagon presented it, how American media frequently rubber-stamped it, and how the staff of al-Jazeera did their own partisan part, too.
Noujaim, a co-director of the fascinating "Startup.com," does not seem to know what she's filming. The movie feels like an editing job of found footage, rather than a carefully planned shoot. But what she does find is absorbing, simply for its three-dimensional perspective. The documentary covers the main highlights of the war's media coverage, including al-Jazeera's highly controversial decision to show footage of captured American troops, and the eventual fall of Baghdad.
Noujaim also attended news briefings by Centcom (the abbreviation for the American military's U.S. Central Command), witnessed candid conversations between journalists and Centcom press officer Lt. Josh Rushing, and spent virtually unlimited time in the al-Jazeera newsroom. She also conducted many interviews with, and followed around, al-Jazeera journalists such as Hassan Ibrahim and senior producer Samir Khader.
The job of al-Jazeera, Khader says, is to "shake up rigid societies. Wake up. There's something happening in the world." But it's not entirely clear if he means any rigid societies in the Arab world. He speaks with impassioned vitriol about Donald Rumsfeld yet also admits that, if Fox News offered him a job, he'd take it immediately.
The al-Jazeera journalists, who are seen experiencing the death of a beloved colleague as the result of a U.S. bomb attack, aren't bashful about their allegiance. An al-Jazeera employee whose job is to interpret the statements of Pentagon press spokesmen and President Bush makes no secret of his disgust at the Americans that he's translating. And when news images show Saddam Hussein's statue being pulled down, a female al-Jazeera producer laments: "We lost Baghdad."
The journalist who seems most amenable to both sides of the issue is Ibrahim, who shares good-natured but politically caustic conversations with Rushing. The American press officer, who has since been banned by the U.S. military from speaking about his role in this movie, shows dawning enlightenment for someone in his position. He attempts to understand a divided world and his cultural bias, while neither betraying his love of the United States nor blinding himself with it. When you listen to him, as well as Ibrahim's appreciation for the Constitution, you could be forgiven for entertaining stirring feelings of hope.
CONTROL ROOM (Unrated, 86 minutes) -- Contains disturbing carnage of soldiers and civilians, including children. In English and some Arabic with subtitles. Area theaters.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
In "Control Room," Samir Khader, a senior producer for al-Jazeera, speaks with impassioned anger about Donald Rumsfeld, but says that if Fox News offered him a job, he'd take it immediately.