Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 08, 2004 10:26 am 
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Roughly, another point of view

[Review published on CineScene]

Jehane Noujaim is the Egyptian-American who codirected the serendipitously timed 2001documentary of the Dot-Com débâcle, Her new film is consciously well timed: she knew covering the Al Jazeera cable network at the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq would send off sparks.

For her Al Jazeera spokesmen Noujaim relies heavily on senior producer Samir Khader and producer/reporter Hassan Ibrahim – the only staff people we really get to know. She also shows Al Jazeera’s chief English-to-Arabic interpreter at work. The looks on his face when he translates the words of Bush and Rumsfeld into Arabic speak volumes. Some lively comments by a young woman producer at Al Jazeera are also captured on film.

Another serendipitous concidence is that Al Jazeera has a neighbor in Qatar, CentCom, the US military “Central command” center for propaganda/information on the Iraq war. The Arabic version of CentCom’s name on the sign outside means "Coalition Publicity Center,” but a Brit journalist warns the catchy American name sounds a lot like “sit-com.” Noujaim wound up dividing her time between Al Jazeera and CentCom and got some revealing footage by watching journalists watch the American military spokesmen. Young Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a US press officer who met with Al Jazeera and other reporters day to day, turned out to be a surprisingly open-minded and well meaning individual. Rushing’s encounters with Al Jazeera staff may have changed him more than he changed them. He’s suffering for it: he’s been forbidden to discuss his participation in this film.

The timeline of Control Room includes the fall of Baghdad, the disorder that followed, and the taking down of the Saddam statue in the square. It focuses on subsequent US air and land attacks that killed an Al Jazeera cameraman and destroyed their headquarters in Baghdad despite the fact that the coordinates of those headquarters were emphatically made clear to US authorities by the TV station.

Back at CentCom, we observe interactions between US military spokespersons and the press in general, some of which are lively. This alternates with interviews conducted at Al Jazeera’s Qatar offices and with available news footage.

Control Room gives a human face to Al Jazeera, a TV station unknown to most Americans (it broadcasts only in Arabic) and demonized by shills of the administration like Fouad Ajami in the New York Times Magazine and by administration officials like Donald Rumsfeld. To see that several of Al Jazeera’s chief people are reasonable and articulate and not the least wild-eyed or rabidly anti-western or anti-American – one of them, Samir Khader, even says he hopes to send his children to school in the US and would take a job at Fox News in a second if one were offered to him – must be instructive for anyone with an open mind who watches this film. To see the invasion of Iraq briefly through the eyes of an informed Arab, as Lt. Josh Rushing also had occasion to do, must be an eye-opener for American viewers.

It’s also instructive to see the African American chief PR officer Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks issue arbitrary, condescending declarations to the press at CentCom. The most notable example is when Gen. Brooks announces the deck of cards listing Iraq’s 55 “most wanted” -- without providing copies of these cards for journalists, or even the list of names. A British journalist vociferously declares this to be the most flagrant example of incompetence he has ever seen. (“Incredibly inept,” are words he uses.) At another point a US officer announces at CentCom that the US/coalition forces have entered Baghdad, but refuses to specify the point of entry. US military arrogance is in full view in Control Room’s CentCom footage.

We see Rumsfeld sounding off that Al Jazeera lies, and that “lies eventually come out” -- a supremely ironic line in view of subsequent revelations of the administration’s own conscious distortions of fact. Rumsfeld claims that whenever a bomb is dropped, Al Jazeera shows some women and children hurt, but who knows if by the bomb in question. Control Room replies with Al Jazeera footage of a bomb and its victims that shows the clear connection.

When the statue of Saddam comes down, a young woman producer at Al Jazeera says they’re shocked as Arabs to see it. She doesn’t yet know that the US Marines engineered this event with instructions from above. Samir Khader observes that he grew up in Iraq and that the people pulling down the statue don’t look to him like Iraqis.

We see the Al Jazeera-released footage of captured and frightened Americans giving their names that led to such outcries from the Americans. Another even heavier irony: at this event we see Bush saying he hopes the American prisoners will be treated ”humanely… as we treat our POW’s.” The audience in the theater laughed out loud at this. Al Jazeera footage follows showing US soldiers abusing captives – not at Abu Ghraib but outdoors in plain view.

Lt. Rushing admits that after seeing the captured Americans and feeling pain, then realizing he’d seen footage of dead Iraqis and been unbothered, he feels sorry there’s such a thing as war, but he doesn’t think we’re ready to do away with it now. Rushing’s sweet naiveté contrasts sharply with the sophistication and cynicism of the English-educated former BBC reporter Hassan Ibrahim, now an Al Jazeera reporter with an English wife who lives in Jerusalem and “speaks perfect Hebrew.” Ibrahim is given perhaps too free rein to vent his opinions about American poor judgment and stupidity, especially early in the film.

Here as elsewhere, there is too little initiative and too little organization behind the production. Control Room is somewhat frustrating. Like Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans it’s a documentary with terrific material that fell into less than brilliant hands. This isn’t by any means a thorough study of Al Jazeera or its coverage of the US invasion of Iraq. The film doesn’t give a complete picture either of Al Jazeera’s war coverage or of how it’s produced, and we get hardly a glimpse of what its other programming is like -– though it’s possible that in the Arab world it's not the news footage but the station’s international call-in discussion shows that are its most significant element, because they provide instant dialogue among the Arab peoples across thirteen nations -- a power of communication that one day may have untold impact.

Lacking any striking organization, the film succeeds chiefly through the Al Jazeera folks’ willingness to talk to a US documentarian and being in a good place at a good time, just as Noujaim was for the Internet débâcle in Not a world-class documentary, Control Room hasn’t a fraction of the structure and impact (and publicity) of Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11. But for Iraq-watchers, Bush-watchers, and media-watchers, it’s still a must-see. Merely placing an American camera inside the “control room” of Al Jazeera was, in itself, a radical act.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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