It is high season for lefty documentaries. Last week’s “The Corporation” was a veritable WTO riot of volleys in the direction of all things corporate. And you probably need little introduction to Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which has generated more pre-release publicity than probably any documentary ever made.
So “Control Room” will be a bit overshadowed, simply by bad timing. But this is still a provocative piece, albeit one with little pretense toward objectivity.
It’s an effort to look at the Iraq war through the eyes of Arabs, specifically by focusing on the workings of Al-Jazeera, the Arabic TV network based in Qatar that has become increasingly influential in world affairs.
Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim took a crew to Qatar just before the war began, to get some kind of story, and he settled on a portrait of Al-Jazeera. What emerges is still ambiguous – the question of whether Al-Jazeera is pro-Arab propaganda or a voice of truth in world media can’t really be settled by what we see on screen.
As a documentary, “Control Room” is undeniably absorbing, and introduces us to some vivid personalities. Three men in particular pull focus.
Samir Khader, an Al-Jazeera producer, comes across as a typical world-weary European intellectual, cigarette in hand. He vehemently opposes the war, but he idly dreams of working in the United States someday.
Hassan Ibrahim, a reporter for the network and a mountainous man, is also charismatic. He ridicules the war (“You can defeat everyone, but don’t ask us to love it”), but he also declares his “absolute confidence in the American Constitution and the American people.”
Lt. Josh Rushing, the U.S. military press officer during the early stages of the war, coordinates military information with reporters hunkered down in offices in Qatar. A sincere young man, Rushing stays on message in the early going, but is clearly affected by his conversations with Arab journalists.
Rushing has one great moment when he equates Al-Jazeera with Fox News as he is trying to explain that Al-Jazeera slants its reporting in order to appeal to Arab nationalists, just as Fox slants its reporting to appeal to U.S. conservatives. Rupert Murdoch will be thrilled to hear his network compared to Al-Jazeera.
We get glimpses of other members of the press corps (CNN’s Tom Mintier is a particularly amusing old pro), but the focus stays on Al-Jazeera. One riveting sequence details the death of an Al-Jazeera reporter who was killed in an attack that appeared to be specifically targeting the network’s building (U.S. military stated that they were returning fire from the building). A shaken Samir Khader icily says, “We acknowledge receipt of this message.”
It is certainly interesting to see events from the Iraq war from the other side, but the film also leaves questions unanswered. Al-Jazeera reporters state that the Iraqi celebrations (the footage of people pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue) were staged for the cameras. But there is no proof offered on either side, and it would be good to get the real story.
“Control Room” HHH
Through Arab eyes: A look at the workings of Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV network, during the Iraq war. The movie doesn’t settle many questions, and it can’t be described as objective, but it offers a provocative look at another perspective. (In English and Arabic, with English subtitles.)
Rated: Not rated; probably R for violence.
Now showing: Varsity, Seattle.