Jehane Noujaim, an Egyptian American filmmaker at home in two cultures, observed a war with dramatically different meanings in each of them.
She was in Doha, Qatar, hanging out with journalists when a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled from its plinth in Baghdad by American soldiers, an iconic moment in the war in Iraq. Through the lens of her video camera, at the media center set up by U.S. Central Command, she watched as Western journalists laughed and cheered. But things were very different at al-Jazeera, the pioneering Arab television network, where the mood was morbid. "They were asking, 'Where is the Republican Guard? Where is the Iraqi army? Even though we hate Saddam, it is embarrassing to be ripping apart a statue in front of the whole world.' "
When she needed footage of the Jessica Lynch rescue, another event played over and over by U.S. media, Noujaim went to al-Jazeera's video library and asked. She got a blank look. "They didn't know what the hell we were talking about," says Noujaim.
The immediate subject of Noujaim's documentary "Control Room" is al-Jazeera, but its real theme is the huge gulf in understanding that exists between Americans and the Arab world and the way events, big and small, connected to the war in Iraq have taken on markedly different weight, meanings and emotional import.
"Control Room," which will be shown for the first time locally tonight at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring, is one of several new documentaries that question the traditional media's self-censorship and objectivity. As with Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" (which opens nationally June 25) and James Miller's "Death in Gaza" (being screened at the festival Saturday), Noujaim's movie has become a conduit for images of war and conflict that do not easily make it to American television screens.
Noujaim's film doesn't linger over them, but in telling her story she shows scenes of American soldiers shouting obscenities and striking Iraqi prisoners, graphic footage of civilian wounded and bitter harangues from Iraqis who have lost homes or family members during the war.
These images have been the stock in trade of al-Jazeera's coverage, not only in the Iraq war but throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. They have helped make al-Jazeera synonymous with "anti-American" among the network's critics, including many in the Bush administration. By bringing them to a larger American public that doesn't watch al-Jazeera, Noujaim's documentary asks a question that has been gathering enormous momentum since the emergence of photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison: Why haven't we seen this?
"Independent documentary film has often been in conversation with mainstream media and goes for stories that they feel are being untold, perspectives that they feel are undervalued," says Barbara Abrash, associate director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University. "It comes out of the tradition of documentary filmmaking."
That impulse, which Abrash describes as the need to "witness," has flourished particularly during times of political upheaval. In the 1930s, leftist filmmakers, organized in loose collectives, produced alternative newsreels, documenting labor struggles that weren't being covered elsewhere. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vietnam and the civil rights movement animated a new generation of cinema verite documentary makers who developed the bare-bones, minimal narration, "fly-on-the-wall" style that lives on in Noujaim's work.
The current boom in documentary filmmaking has come at another moment of political division and is facilitated, in part, by wide access to relatively cheap, high-quality video cameras and editing equipment, which have made documentary making almost as accessible as Internet blogging.
The Silverdocs festival, hosted by the AFI and funded by the Discovery Channel, is in its second year but is already attracting major entries for its juried feature film competition. Reflecting the Washington area's role as a center for the production of serious documentary, the festival has a strong focus on movies with political subjects, and the festival has capitalized on the area's local industries -- government, policy, international affairs -- to assemble prestigious discussion panels. Former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke is scheduled to be on a panel tonight discussing "Control Room."
Noujaim, 30, went to Harvard planning to be a doctor. But as an inhabitant of two worlds, Egypt and the United States, she became interested in issues of perception and difference. She remembers visiting slum areas around Cairo where dozens of people would be clustered in front of televisions, watching debate shows on al-Jazeera. And as the war approached, she decided that the growing rift between American and Arab perceptions had to be studied in depth.
Noujaim's approach harks back to that of her mentors, the legendary documentary makers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. Using lightweight video cameras, Noujaim's team gathered hundreds of hours of raw footage at CentCom headquarters and at the al-Jazeera offices in Doha. She followed three major characters: Samir Khader, a senior producer at al-Jazeera, his colleague Hassan Ibrahim and Marine Lt. (now Capt.) Josh Rushing, the CentCom press officer assigned to work with Arab media.
Khader emerges as the droll philosopher, a chain-smoking realist given to the existential insights one expects from a Parisian cafe denizen. Ibrahim, an English-born journalist of Sudanese descent who came to al-Jazeera from the BBC, is an amiable goad to his colleagues, and to Rushing, whom he manages to convince that, while perceptions may not be reality, they matter. And Rushing is an earnest foil, holding his ground when it comes to spelling out the American line but increasingly open to and conflicted about other perspectives.
Noujaim constructs her movie around several central episodes of the war: al-Jazeera's decision to show civilian casualties and the capture of American troops, the bombing by coalition forces of al-Jazeera's Baghdad office, which killed journalist Tariq Ayoub, and the fall of Baghdad, which profoundly demoralizes some of the al-Jazeera journalists.
Western journalists are presented as prey to distractions such as the Lynch rescue and mindless non-stories. When CentCom journalists are introduced to the famous deck of cards bearing pictures of top Iraqi leaders, there's desperation to get copies. But CentCom has none to offer, which leads to an apparently rare moment of confrontation between the reporters and the military.
"You kept hearing, 'This is a picture story,' " says Noujaim. "The cards were something that could be easily shown on television. All of the sudden their bosses were calling up. They don't want one station to get it before another. It felt crazy and absurd."
The choice of what to show, and what not to show, becomes the central issue facing both Western media and al-Jazeera. For Khader, the senior producer at al-Jazeera, his newsroom's focus on the humanitarian cost of the war was central to an Arab perspective that is, in journalistic terms, no less biased than an American perspective.
"You cannot think of a journalist in an abstract way," says Khader. "He is first of all a human being. He has his own mentality, his beliefs, the demands of his editorial line. The American media covered the war exactly like us."
Noujaim says that she edited her movie in Egypt and in the United States and that the contrast between the worlds became central to her understanding of the war.
"When I was [in Egypt] looking at footage of the dead and wounded, the kid in the hospital, of course we should have this in the film," she said.
"Then when I got back to the States, you turn on the television and everything feels very neat and clean and pristine, and all of the sudden you look at these images and they feel extremely violent. And you question, is it important to show these images?"
Rather than approach these different perspectives as an argument, with traditional journalist devices such as "some say" or "critics argue," she simply juxtaposed them -- which suggests a different standard of truth than that found in most journalistic accounts.
"The documentarian takes personal responsibility for what he shows," says Mark Jonathan Harris, an Oscar-winning documentary maker and a professor at the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California. "The journalist often hides behind a shield of anonymity or a shield of being 'fair and balanced.' "
Documentary makers such as Noujaim are benefiting, and to some degree suffering, from the "Michael Moore effect." Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" was the most successful documentary of its kind, and one of the distributors of "Fahrenheit 9/11" expects it to top all previous documentaries (it will open on 500 to 750 screens nationwide).
But there are concerns in the field -- concerns that sound very much like echoes of basic arguments about traditional journalistic ethics -- that Moore's op-ed style is untrustworthy and that it threatens the essential trust developed between a documentary maker, his subjects and his audience. But Moore has blazed a trail and, according to industry observers, his success has removed the stigma from the word "documentary."
The unlikely stars of Noujaim's film are now adapting to life with celebrity. Ibrahim has been recognized in a restaurant in Manhattan. Khader, when told that his remarks have been singled out by critics as among the movie's high points, responds in kind: "When somebody tells you that you are famous in the Arab world, you say, 'Where do I cash it?' " And Rushing has been silenced by the Marine Corps, which says he has been reassigned and won't be allowed to take questions about his role in "Control Room."
His wife, Paige Rushing, says that he is angry and disappointed and that after 14 years in the corps, he is now planning to leave. Of all the characters in Noujaim's film, he was the one who evolved and grew most, never wavering in his basic views but willing to listen.
"He feels he has something of consequence to say," says Paige Rushing. "This was a personal experience for him, and he feels that his opinion is relevant. He would love to share it." The Marine Corps says only that he is no longer working for CentCom and will not be allowed to speak.
Rushing's candor in the film led him to say things that may be deemed controversial, including a comparison of Fox News and al-Jazeera as simply two viewpoints at opposite ends of the same spectrum. What he does after the Marines is open, but, in the film, he said he might look into another controversial subject, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
"I don't think Americans are getting good information about it," he said. "I really don't."