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Through the looking glass with Al Jazeera

Jehane Noujaim's documentary 'Control Room' challenges what some might expect of the news channel.

June 18, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Think of "Control Room" as a through-the-looking-glass movie. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, viewers of this remarkable documentary will be disconcerted by a glimpse of a world where everything is reversed, where our most cherished preconceptions are called into question and reality proves to be a more complex business than we imagined.

The control room in question belongs to Al Jazeera, the satellite news organization based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar that, with 40 million viewers, is easily the most popular channel in the Arab world. It is also the channel that has been relentlessly demonized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who's called it everything from "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable" to "the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden" to an outfit dedicated to "pounding people day after day with things that are not true."

"Control Room" director Jehane Noujaim decided she wanted to see this place for herself. An Egyptian American who divided her childhood between Cairo and the United States, Noujaim has documentary experience -- she co-directed the excellent "Startup.com" -- and she has the tireless curiosity essential to getting a job like this done.

Getting access to Al Jazeera was not automatic, but Noujaim, who's called her profession "kind of like being a glorified spy," managed to get inside beginning a month before the invasion of Iraq and lasting through the brunt of the battle for Baghdad. Working with a digital camera and almost no crew, she skillfully alternates classic fly-on-the-wall journalism with interviews with the station's reporters and producers. Though Noujaim is obviously not in a position to vouch for the journalistic integrity of each and every employee, what emerges is a portrait that is different than the one we likely have.

For even if we've discounted a portion of what Rumsfeld has said, let alone believed it all, watching "Control Room" leads to the conclusion that we have not discounted enough. Al Jazeera personnel turn out to be not the wild-eyed fanatics the Pentagon would have us imagine but articulate, sophisticated, Westernized men and women, often BBC trained, who take their professional integrity fully as seriously as their American counterparts.

More than that, Al Jazeera claims as one of its missions educating the Arab world about democracy. In fact its desire to, as one of its senior producers says, "shake up these rigid societies, awaken them," has gotten it banned in several especially repressive countries.

That producer, Samir Khader, is one of "Control Room's" main voices, and one of its most surprising. Deeply troubled by the American bombing of Baghdad ("we are Arabs like them, we are Muslims like them, we feel for the Iraqi people"), he nevertheless berates one of his bookers for putting an American antiwar activist on the air, explaining that "there is too much opinion, no logic, we want guests who are balanced." Khader also wants his children to study in America and adds with a smile, "If I am offered a job with Fox News I will take it, changing the Arab nightmare to the American dream."

Also divided is reporter Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese journalist who says scornfully of the invasion, " 'Democracy or I'll shoot you,' it just doesn't work that way." He defends Al Jazeera's willingness to show Americans in captivity and the bloody results of American bombing by saying, "I'm sorry, you can't have your cake and eat it too. I agree, you are the most powerful nation, you can crush us, but to ask us to love it as well ...." Yet Ibrahim too believes in Western democracy and says he has "absolute confidence in the American people to stop this."

Because of the coincidence that CentCom, the headquarters for American invasion, was also in Qatar, less than 20 miles from Al Jazeera's headquarters, "Control Room" also gets to show how the American military treated the press and how the press responded. Again surprisingly, one of the film's most sympathetic characters is Lt. Josh Rushing, an American press officer, a truly earnest and decent guy who struggles to reconcile his beliefs, his government's official positions and what he sees around him.

Given that events have moved well past the invasion of Baghdad, some elements in "Control Room" are dated, but fewer than you'd think. It's still of interest to see how the military attempted to spin the Jessica Lynch story and to hear Al Jazeera's analysis of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue. And, especially in the light of mea culpas by some news outlets, it's instructive to hear Khader's prescient analysis of the pre-invasion U.S. press and Iraq. "The American media are being hijacked to be used as leverage to induce fears within the American public," he says. "They make Americans fear they are under siege, threatened by Saddam Hussein."

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