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First, I will get some things out of the way. "Control Room" is not a great film when we look at it as filmmaking. It is not very well shot. It is evident it was done with digital cameras. The color is often terrible. It feels overly long, although only 84 minutes. The sound track, with its extra heavy explosions of war, is too loud and uneven, done for effect. Blow things up loudly and you get the audience's attention; Hollywood does it all the time. I do not believe the producers had to manipulate the audience with heavy sound effects to make their point. However, that is a detail.
The trend today in documentary films is to place content ahead of art. "Control Room" fits that mode, being compelling, strong and very timely. Despite its shortcomings, the film succeeds because it tells compelling stories, has convincing characters and, of course, is controversial, at a time when the war in Iraq is nothing but controversial.
By now we know the story. Director Jehane Noujaim, an Egyptian- American woman, who straddles America and the diverse Middle East, had the idea to tell the story of Arab television and how being Arab affects the coverage of news. She secured access to the Arab television network, Al Jazeera, with its headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Started in 1996, Al Jazeera is the most popular news channel in the Middle East, with a potential for an estimated 40,000,000 viewers.
Allowed also to film at Centcom, the United States Central Command's control center in Qatar, Noujaim split her time between there and Al Jazeera. She stayed in the Middle East 30 days and did not have far to travel to film in either location, each about 700 miles from Baghdad. Noujaim's unusual and open access to Al Jazeera allows her film to succeed on many levels.
Al Jazeera is controversial because it comes to television news with standards, customs and experience unlike what we have in the United States. Where our TV executives think twice about showing violence, atrocities, captured prisoners, and broadcasting tapes purportedly from Al Qaeda without authentication, Al Jazeera takes a freer view of presenting what it wants, some of which is -- from an American perspective -- clearly propaganda, and seems to show practically everything that finds it way into its newsroom.
It has become obvious that American television and Arab television, here represented by Al Jazeera, have a different view on life, and the audiences each serves are poles apart economically, culturally and historically.
Casting is as important in a documentary as it is in a feature film or sitcom. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. In "Control Room," the director cast her film beautifully, but with faulty imbalance. Everyone from Al Jazeera was thoughtful, insightful, warm, filled with an unexpected understanding of the United States, often cynical, and even surprisingly upbeat about the future. They know far more about America than Americans know about anything Arab.
One reporter who stands out is Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist who once worked for the BBC. He is likeable, knowledgeable, experienced, committed and a sometimes bitter man who is often disgusted with the United States and how it plays power politics to the detriment of good sense, especially in the Middle East.
Ibrahim's foil at Centcom is Lt. Josh Rushing, a young press officer at the U.S. Army's Central Command headquarters, there to represent the military and the United States' point of view. Rushing comes across as weak, naïve, programmed with the military's necessary belief in its brand of truth, robotic in his answers. The superior intellect and easy ability to reason of his Arab counterpart overwhelms him as he daily struggles to understand a world he knows nothing about. At times he appears nervous, unsure of what he should say and, more to the point, possibly affected by what he learns, thus inadvertently allowing us see his mind wilting in the face of the unknown.
It seems his superiors sacrificed him, that they could not be bothered to offer an officer with more experience to represent their cause. Not that it would have made a difference. It is as if the American command believed Jehane Noujaim, a woman and young, with her small cameras and crews crawling all over the place, did not pose a threat to America's philosophy or methodology.
Well, she did pose a threat to both at American headquarters. Though she operated in the open, Noujaim proved to be a stealth filmmaker. Working at Centcom could not have been easy. As with the other journalists covering Centcom, she also had little or no access to important military brass. In this case, that worked to Noujaim's advantage , with Lt. Rushing serving as the only foil to counter the view from the Arab reporters.
In contrast, it is clear there were no limits to her access at Al Jazeera. I came to understand more of the world according to Al Jazeera than I knew before. However, I missed knowing who was in charge of their day-to-day news coverage, their access to terrorists, and I question where they get the money to run their station. Too much is in the dark for me to trust them.
I do not believe there is a secret cabal deciding how Al Jazeera covers the news, but it is possible. It was not evident to me that the people I saw operating the station were the only ones deciding policy.
Yet, remarkably, Noujaim was able to peer inside the hearts and minds of the professionals who worked at Al Jazeera in a way I found surprising and rewarding, mainly because they allowed her to explore their emotions. Many of these journalists were refugees from the BBC World Service, where they got their training and, more importantly, their insight into the Western mind -- something sorely missing from the officials at Centcom and not understood by the American correspondents, at least as seen in the film.
The American reporters Noujaim followed and highlighted did not do the American profession of journalism proud. Only Tom Mintier of CNN comes across as thoughtful and smart, an adult among the youth and exuberance of what I thought were junior, inexperienced reporters getting their first taste of war.
In contrast, one man stands out among the many at Al Jazeera, the single most important figure in the film, the senior producer, Samir Khader. He is a chain-smoking, rumpled man, his hair always askew, with an answer to everything on many levels, some of which are surprising.
Though an Arab nationalist, he also, and this may seem strange to an American audience, believes in freedom of the press. I think he longs for better days and toward the end of the film he says, "Between us, if I am offered a job at Fox, I will take it . . . to exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream."
Irony, yes, and more than a hint at the pervasiveness and the influence of American civilization on his world. He even says he wants his children educated in the United States. Khader is a man I would enjoy spending hours with swapping stories, sipping beers, arguing, and then shaking hands as we go our separate ways.
Should I trust the motives and spin I get from Al Jazeera with its commitment and understanding of its truth? No. Should I trust the motives and spin I get from Centcom as the representative of the United States, my country, with its commitment and understanding of its truth? No.
Those who see the film and do not know how the news business works will gain insight into how two different media managers pursue their understanding of truth and where they place their emphasis. When the excessively managed Jessica Lynch story dominated news coverage in the States, it was not even a blip on the radar screen of Al Jazeera. Not because they knew better. Just that it meant very little to its audience.
I make no brief how Al Jazeera presents what it considers news. Covering the war in Iraq requires depth and time, neither of which seems to be available in what are limited American broadcasts with limited budgets. Talking heads, often government officials programmed to answer everything in a politically correct manner, take up too many minutes, or should I say hours, of our broadcasting day. Therefore, we learn very little of what we need to make an informed decision.
Just as "Entertainment Tonight" and its ilk depend on celebrities for its audience and ultimately for success, so the news shows also depend on official, government and military sources for what they think is their success. Sadly, we are sinking into the morass of the uninformed and we deserve better, but it is up to us to seek change, something I think we, unfortunately, will not try hard enough to do.
"Control Room" is an important documentary. See it and you might gain some understanding of the cultural divide that exists between the United States and most Arabs. It is also a lesson in why the United States is failing in its mission to transform a culture vastly different from ours into the 51st state.
POSTSCRIPT: Speaking of control and the management of news, several weeks ago, the United States Senate again did itself proud by voting to bar news photographs of flag-covered coffins when they return to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware from Iraq. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who voted against the Bush White House's latest successful effort to manage the news of this increasingly costly war, said, "A majority of the Senate are now working on behalf of the president to conceal from the American people the true costs of the war."
The White House contends it is an issue of privacy, though there are no names on any of the flag-draped coffins of these dead men and women. It is not an issue of national security. The moment when the coffins come off the airplane is solemn and sad.
The ban on taking photos is the height of control. Nowhere did I see even a whimper from our increasingly docile mainstream news organizations. Shame on them.
© Ron Steinman
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