Despite all the press attention being lavished on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, (which opens on Friday, June 25th) this disturbing new documentary from Jehane Noujaim, (Start-Up.Com) may be a more important source of information about Iraq for Americans - - and a lot more significant over time, for it takes as its subject matter the manner in which the American media has portrayed the conflict there by contrasting our domestic television coverage with that supplied to the Islamic world by the privately owned Arab T.V. network Al Jazeera.
Control Room covers the build-up to last year's invasion of Iraq by focusing on CentCom, the Qatar-based media center set up by the U. S. military to provide information to the world's news organizations. As such, it became a meeting ground for journalists and the American military spokesmen detailed to supply them with information. Noujaim, a 28 year-old Arab-American documentarian, trains her cameras on numerous exchanges between the journalists and Josh Rushing, the earnest Marine lieutenant assigned to present our country's viewpoint on unfolding events. The results speak for themselves; in 84 short minutes, Noujaim manages to capture the simplistic naiveté of the U.S. media's coverage, (now so painfully apparent in the wake of subsequent events) as contrasted with the more complex portrait presented with brutal honesty by the staff of Al Jazeera. What makes the film most interesting is that its reporters frankly concede many of the accusations made by our government about those in control in the Arab world, (official repression, "doctored" news coverage, sanctioned suppression of opinion) while also displaying a fundamental conviction that America really does stand for what it promotes; openness, individual rights and freedom of expression.
Samir Khader, an engaging and articulate producer for Al Jazeera, speaks freely about his admiration for America and its values, hopes to see his children educated in the U.S. and says flatly that if given the opportunity to work for a U.S. network, he'd take it. Yet he's angry at the staged elements he discovers in the now-famous toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad, the inaccurate accents of many purported citizens of that city who seemingly greet our troops with great enthusiasm, and the American obsession for reporting U.S. causalities while ignoring those involving Iraq’s civilians. His pleas for more balance are interspersed with clips of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's incessantly contemptuous attacks on the veracity of Al Jazeera's coverage. In the wake of the prisoner-abuse/torture scandal, the military's demand that "American POW's expect to be treated humanely, just like we are treating our prisoners humanely", (coupled with the refusal of senior Administration officials to take responsibility for these fundamental human rights violations) provides new meaning for the word disingenuous.
Noujaim doesn't try to force too much structure on this material; most of her footage consists of guys just sitting around talking, and she's careful to provide more than equal time for Lt. Rushing and his colleagues in the military to make their case for our involvement, which they do with often commendable fairness and sensitivity. But the images that accompany the interviews and conversations topple the case that Al Jazeera is simply a tool of Arab/Islamic propaganda; by showing her audiences material not previously shown on U.S. television, the director makes a vivid case for the very inadequacies in domestic coverage so many U.S. news organizations are now admitting.
While her sympathies obviously don't lie with the Administration's position on the war's coverage, Noujaim also takes steps to display the bias of Al Jazeera's staff as well; their correspondents are frequently as flippant about American intentions as we are about Islamic motives and when one member of their team is killed along with two other journalists in a bombing raid in Baghdad, (at a location clearly identified to the U.S. military as a war correspondent site) the Al Jazeera personnel following the incident in Qatar are quick to assume it’s motivation is deliberate reprisal for their coverage rather than simple military error.
This material is more thought provoking than gripping, raising issues of accuracy even as it dispatches the easy condemnation of Al Jazeera's reporting on the war and its coverage of subsequent events in the Arab world. The film doesn't provide enough information to form a judgment about whether that network meets the standards of objectivity Americans have come to expect from a free media--but the movie deftly suggests that before we pass judgment on this foreign news organization, we would do well to demand a higher standard of performance from our own.
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