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War through Al Jazeera's eyes

In 'Control Room,' Jehane Noujaim goes behind the scenes of the controversial, Qatar-based station's coverage of the Iraq invasion.

June 06, 2004|John Clark | Special to The Times

It has been described by the U.S. government as "the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden." Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has called its reports "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable."

The subject of this invective is Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news station that serves some 40 million viewers, most of them in the Middle East. The name means "island" -- an island, as one of the station's correspondents puts it, "in a sea of nonsense" (i.e., state-run news).

Depending on your point of view, Al Jazeera reflects Arab opinion, shapes it, or is an honest, independent broker of news.

"We've been accused of being a mouthpiece for Yasser Arafat, a mouthpiece for the Mossad [the Israeli intelligence agency], a mouthpiece for the Americans, a mouthpiece for Bin Laden, a mouthpiece for Saddam, and a mouthpiece for the Iranian regime," says Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim, who points out that one of the station's journalists was arrested and tortured by the Sudanese.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Military press officer -- The last name of Lt. Josh Rushing, U.S. Army Central Command press officer in Qatar, was misspelled as Rush in a second reference in an article about the documentary "Control Room" in Sunday's Calendar section. The film is about the Qatar-based news station Al Jazeera.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"Control Room" -- A Sunday Calendar article said Jehane Noujaim's documentary about the Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera would open this Friday. It opens June 18.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 13, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Military press officer -- The last name of Lt. Josh Rushing, U.S. Army Central Command press officer in Qatar, was misspelled as Rush in a second reference in article in last Sunday's Calendar on the documentary "Control Room." The film is about the Qatar-based news station Al Jazeera. Also, the article said the documentary would open last Friday. It actually opens this Friday.

"I think the main thing about Al Jazeera is that it doesn't check its facts," says Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Gareth Bayley, speaking from Baghdad. "They've made allegations that Marines were dismembering women and attacking children. Whenever there's an attack [by the insurgency], it's called 'resistance.' They use loaded terminology. So does everybody else, but they do it on several orders of magnitude."

Now comes a perspective from inside Al Jazeera, Jehane Noujaim's "Control Room," a documentary that goes behind the scenes of the station's coverage of the invasion of Iraq a year ago. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will be released Friday, follows Ibrahim, senior producer Sameer Khader and Central Command press officer Lt. Josh Rushing as they grapple with information coming out of Iraq: the invasion itself, the fall of Baghdad, the killing of an Al Jazeera journalist by an American airstrike and the looting that occurred in the aftermath of the war. At the time, Al Jazeera's reporting on all of this was news itself. As Noujaim sees it, there's an irony in that.

"Nobody in the United States, the freest, most open country in the world, knows anything about Al Jazeera," she says. "Here Al Jazeera is about freedom of the press, the United States is trying to create freedom of the press and democracy in the Arab world, and they're heavily criticizing Al Jazeera. I thought the whole thing was an intriguing story and a set of contradictions that would be interesting to look into."

Noujaim seems ideally placed to do just that. An Egyptian American, she was raised in Cairo and went to Harvard, where she graduated in visual arts and philosophy. She directed a documentary, "Mokattam," about an Egyptian garbage-collecting village, worked for MTV News as a documentary producer, and directed "Startup.com," a celebrated documentary about the rise and fall of an Internet firm. It was while visiting friends and family in Cairo and then revisiting the garbage-collecting village that she first thought of documenting Al Jazeera, which began broadcasting in 1996 and is supported by the Qatar government.

"They literally had no money to pay the rent," Noujaim says of the village people who collect garbage. "The next month they had pooled together their resources to buy a satellite dish. I had filmed women who would pick up pieces of newspaper from the garbage in order to educate themselves on what was going on in the world. All of sudden these same women had access to satellite TV, speeches from the U.S., Israeli officials, Arab officials. And also debates -- once you start seeing debates on TV like that, it kind of opens up the possibility for debate within your own community."

'A very determined woman'

While this sort of anthropology is interesting, Noujaim recognized it wasn't sexy enough to interest potential distributors. The looming war, however, gave her the perfect pretext to profile a station that was reaching the same people, in a sense, that the invasion was trying to reach.

Getting inside was not easy, however. Noujaim flew to Doha, Qatar, on her own nickel, put herself up in a hotel in the Pakistani part of town (while Western network correspondents stayed at the Ritz at $300 a night), and began knocking on doors. Al Jazeera was not interested, however -- in fact, it had turned down other media outlets that had also recognized the station's newsworthiness. It wasn't a matter of trust but of logistics. The station didn't want huge camera crews cluttering its efforts to prepare for the war. Noujaim did manage to land a cafeteria meeting with the station manager, and it was here that she bumped into Ibrahim.

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