DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
CONTROL ROOM (director: Jehane Noujaim; cinematographers: Hani Salama/Jehane Noujaim; editor: Julia Bacha; cast: Sameer Khader, Lt. Josh Rushing, Tom Mintier, Hassan Ibrahim, David Shuster, Deema Khatib; Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Rosadel Varela/Ms. Salama; Magnolia Pictures; 2004-Egypt-in Arabic and English with English subtitles)

 
"The value of the film is limited in only pointing out that the network is not really as monstrous as portrayed in the American media."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Control Room is an eye-opening but dullish topical investigative cinema vérité documentary shot in a straightforward manner by Jehane Noujaim ("Startup.com"), a youthful Egyptian-American woman who recently graduated from Harvard. The subject of the documentary is the independent Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, a satellite network launched in 1996 that claims to be serving 40 million viewers in the Arab world. It was shot during the March 2003 U.S. led invasion into Iraq and covers the onset of the war and the early stages of the American occupation. 

Al-Jazeera was attacked by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld for being biased, faking evidence to make their case to the world and unseemly showing American soldiers on TV as POWs and using offensive pictures of dead American soldiers after a battle. The staffers at the Arab station launch their own propaganda counter-attack to explain their way of covering the news. They claim it is no different from the way the U.S. stations gather information except they are catering to an Arab audience and cover events that would primarily interest their regular audience (in other words they favor the Arab point of view no matter what!). 

The perception by many in America is that the Arab network is a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden and the terrorist leader supplies them with frequent tapes and messages he wants to reach the Arab street. That is never discussed by the film. In fact, all Noujaim's questions to Al-Jazeera are of the softball kind and therefore the value of the film is limited in only pointing out that the network is not really as monstrous as portrayed in the American media. 

The film was shot entirely in Qatar (some 700 hundred miles from Baghdad) where Al-Jazeera is based, along with the American military information station Centcom. A sometimes befuddled earnest American -- Lt. Josh Rushing, Central Command Press Officer -- was one of the officials handling the international press corps. Rushing says "It benefits Al-Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because that's their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism, for the exact same reason... because that's their audience... the big thing for my generation is for these two perspectives - my perspective, the Western perspective, and the Arab perspective - to understand each other better... because, truly, the two worlds are colliding at a rapid rate." I believe that pretty much sums up where this level-headed documentary was heading as it successfully gave voice to those with more rational outlooks to express their opinions. As a result, we learn that the Arab world connects everything that happens in their region with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and that includes the Iraqi War), that the Arab network is solely interested in covering the civilian casualties while the American media is more interested in covering their military casualties, that Al- Jazeera is outraged that their site was targeted by the Americans and that one of their reporters was unjustifiably killed in a bombing raid (as they hold him up as a martyr of the war), and the news station proudly points out that they reported all along that the Americans would not be welcomed with open arms as liberators but thought of as occupiers. 

The documentary came up with no magical moments to make a splash, but instead drily follows several staffers who share their philosophy on how they cover the news. The cynical Saudi Arabian-born and American educated former BBC journalist Hassan Ibrahim believes the Americans don't understand you can't force democracy upon a people with a gun, as he smilingly states America seems to be saying "Democratize or we'll shoot you." He brightens his comments with a perceptive sense of humor when telling about the way the soldiers raid civilian homes to win the hearts and minds of the people, but still voices hope that America's ideals will not let the Bush Administration's unjust war go unchecked. While senior producer Sameer Khader is seen at one point objecting to an opinionated American appearing on a news program even though he is as critical of the war as is everyone at the station--as the producer claims he wants a balanced point of view presented on the news and that the guest should have been instead booked on a talk show where you can say anything without proof. Sameer at a later point mentions "if I'm offered a job with Fox, I will take it [and] exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream." He would also like to send his children to college in America for a good education. At the end, Sameer believes the war will only be justified by victory and that the justice of the war will be written for history by the victors. These staffers hold the same cautious views as the filmmaker, and they all seem to offer contradictory views that are both critical and complimentary of America. Their confusion might be a good topic for another film about how the more educated Arab survives amidst all the conflicts in their part of the world and how it affects them that their religion was co-opted by the extremists.

For most of us in the West, this is the first time we get a chance to look behind-the-scenes of the infamous Al- Jazeera and get a chance to weigh in for ourselves what we heard about the way they do business. The maddening media coverage of the war and the propaganda coming from all sides, should make the viewer more critical in accepting any side alone as telling the complete truth. This for the most part fair-minded documentary, whether it intended to or not, seems to indicate the relevance of that old adage: "truth is the first casualty of war." The documentary also hints that it would be foolish of the Bush Administration not to tune in to Al- Jazeera, if for nothing else, at least to find out the Arab point of view. But we are talking about the Bush Administration, and for them Fox news is probably all they need!

REVIEWED ON 7/5/2004        GRADE: B -

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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