Control Room

I finally got a chance to see Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room. It’s a fascinating documentary about Rumsfeld’s favorite TV news channel, the one and only Al-Jazeera, shot during March 2003 in Doha, Qatar, which served as the headquarters of CentCom and which also happens to be Al-J’s home base. The three main interviewees are the chain-smoking Sameer Khader, a senior producer with Al-Jazeera, veteran journalist Hassan Ibrahim, and Lieutenant Josh Rushing, the American press officer for CentCom.

The movie shows Khader talking to American guests on the air (and simultaneously translating answers–let’s see Wolf Blitzer do that!) He throws a fit when one of the guests isn’t interesting enough because he’s only talking about one side of the story. Ibrahim is shown either at CentCom, asking questions of press officers and engaging them in discussions, or at a coffee house with regular TV viewers. Lieutenant Rushing tries to answer the journalists’ increasingly frustrated questions with equanimity. In one of the movie’s oft-cited clips, Rushing describes how he felt at the sight of wounded American soldiers (‘sick to his stomach’) and how, the night before, he’d seen wounded civilians and gone out to dinner afterwards.

Despite their disagreements with U.S. foreign policy, both Ibrahim and Khader are admiring of the U.S. “I believe in the U.S. constitution,” Ibrahim says, and Khader confesses that he’s planning on sending his kids to study in the U.S. as soon as they finish high school. In one of the movie’s most amusing moments, Khader says that if offered a job with Fox News he would take it. Why? “Maybe I can turn this Arab nightmare into the American dream.” But it’s Ibrahim who provides the movie with some of its best one-liners. ‘Someday, we’ll have to figure out how to deal with people without bombing them into submission,” he says. There are other unintentionally light-hearted moments, such as when Rumsfeld admonishes journalists that those who lie will eventually get caught in their own lies, or when President Bush says he expects American POWs to be treated with the same respect that the Iraqi detainees are being treated.

Noujaim tells her story without voice-over, leaving the viewer to decide which of the conflicting images is ‘spin’ and which is ‘truth.’ However, this stylistic choice makes her work lack in the narrative thread that could have tied all these clips together. It’s hard to judge some of the quotes given by the interviewees without knowing their context–the questions she asked.

In addition, vital information is left out of the movie. For instance, Hassan Ibrahim was raised born in Sudan and raised in Saudi Arabia, where he was a classmate of Osama Bin Ladin. This fact is nowhere to be seen in the movie, and Ibrahim is never once invited to comment about American’s Number 1 enemy on camera. We’re told via notes on the screen that Al-Jazeera was banned in ‘several Arab states’ but none of them are named.

But strangest of all is that, with Fox’s office just a few doors down from where Al-Jazeera’s is at CentCom, we don’t get to see how Fox is covering the news. Too often, Noujaim invites us to believe the people on camera without stepping in with factual evidence. A case in point is when Lieutenant Rushing talks about how, on any given day, he can see which stories Al-Jazeera will lead with, and then turn around and see which stories Fox will choose for the day, each one focusing on stirring up the nationalistic fervor of its demographic. Why not segue from Rushing’s statement to a run-down of the lead stories on Fox and Jazeera for that day (or for any day) to contrast the styles? But instead Noujaum cuts to shots that don’t speak to the important point that Rushing was making.

The documentary was clearly made with the American public in mind, with Jazeera producers and other staff having to explain their journalistic decisions rather than actually showing how news is spun differently depending on whether you’re watching from a living room in Houston or Tripoli.