Tikkun Magazine, January/February 2005
Making the News
By Megan Shaw Prelinger
Control Room, DVD Edition, directed by Jehane Noujaim.
Lion's Gate Home Entertainment, 2004.
Arabic-language news network Al-Jazeera has been a hotly contested entity since it first began broadcasting in 1996. Now reaching over 40 million viewers, this Qatar-based and government-funded broadcaster now rivals CNN and the BBC as one of the most influential television news outlets in the world. Due to the attacks of September 11 and the increasingly strained relations between the United States and the Arab world, Al-Jazeera's status has come under scrutiny—more so in the United States than anywhere else. Famously derided by George W. Bush as "the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden," Al-Jazeera has come to be regarded as a distinctly partisan source for news coverage because of its critical treatment of both the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the occupation of Iraq.
"The message of Al-Jazeera is education: to educate the Arab masses about democracy and respect for other opinions. Free debate, no taboos, to shake up these rigid societies." So says Samir Khader, a senior producer at Al-Jazeera who yearns to send his children to America so they can exchange the "the Arab nightmare for the American dream."
Khader's idealism about Al-Jazeera's role in the Arab world sets the tone for Control Room. Under his production direction, Al-Jazeera hosts world leaders and analysts from all over. In the supplemental narrative track on the recently released DVD version of the documentary, the film's Egyptian-American director, Jehane Noujaim, points out that while Al-Jazeera is reviled in the West, in the Arab world it is held in similar discontent as a "mouthpiece of Zionism" because it occasionally hosts Israeli leaders and commentators as guests.
Noujaim believes that Al-Jazeera is more powerful than any single Middle Eastern head of state and credits it with changing the nature of political dialogue in the Arab world. That helps explain why the channel has been banned in ten Arab nations, although its banning does not seem to have lessened its impact on peoples' lives. Satellite television has brought the outside world to even the most remote Bedouins, and for the Arab world to have its own independent media channel has awakened many people to a range of ideas and perspectives that had no other point of entry.
This is not to say that Al-Jazeera's news reporting is without any political agenda. But as this film deftly illustrates, telling the story of world events always involves production in the broadest sense of the word. Control Room creates a scenario where conflicting interpretations of the war in Iraq directly intersect. Within this setting, the filmmakers give spokespeople from Al-Jazeera and from the U.S. Marines the opportunity to engage one another in a rare dialogue about their respective representations of the conflict. In doing so, Control Room allows its audience to form their own independent judgments about the relationship between journalism and politics. Al-Jazeera's bias is clearly at issue, but so is that of the U.S. military's Central Command.
Thus, some of the revelations in Control Room will be surprising to American audiences. In one scene, as Al-Jazeera producer Hassan Ibrahim—one of the documentary's pivotal characters—runs into a BBC reporter who recognizes him from England and asks him where he works now. "Al-Jazeera," he replies. "Of course," says the British journalist. "Why 'Of course'?" Ibrahim asks. "Because everyone who works for the BBC eventually ends up working for Al-Jazeera."
That Al-Jazeera employees speak English to one another on the job is another in the series of surprises in the movie that, had they been staged or inserted into a drama, would have seemed impossible. Instead, because Control Room is a documentary-verite of the most natural and relaxed kind, the contradictions that arise convince viewers of their truth-value in a subtly subcutaneous fashion. And because the film is artfully edited and its story compellingly told, the viewer's shift in consciousness seems inevitable.
One of the film's central characters is American Marine Captain Josh Rushing, the Press Officer at the Coalition Central Command (CentCom), the media headquarters of which are fifteen miles from the Al-Jazeera production facility in Doha. In some of the most evocative scenes in the movie, Rushing has a heart-to-heart conversation with Hassan Ibrahim about Arab and American mutual misunderstanding. Ibrahim, whose wife, Cathy Green, has lived in Jerusalem and speaks Hebrew, articulates to Rushing that when Arabs see American-made helicopters employed by Israelis against Palestinians, that conflict is elided with the current American invasion of Iraq. Rushing, playing the role of the well-intentioned but under-in-formed American, graciously, if not easily, adjusts his worldview to accommodate this information.
Rushing isn't playing a fictitious role. The verité camera captures him in the process of arriving, step by step, at a new and broader consciousness of the Arab perspective on the entire American-Iraq war and its many contingencies. Noujaim's many interviews with him make this transition palpable and believable. Most importantly, Rushing's process of self-education is portrayed as worthy of respect, and he is taken seriously throughout the film as his perspective changes. In his commentary on the DVD audio track, Rushing makes clear that he might not have been so self-revelatory had he realized that the film would receive such wide exposure. When the film was released, he was put under a gag order by the military that prohibited him from talking about the movie until he was discharged from the service.
Throughout the film, Ibrahim, Khader, and Rushing each grapple with the core issue of Control Room: the role that the media plays in constructing public experience of the war. For each of them, their role in shaping the media representation of the conflict is constantly in play with their own personal process of coming to terms with it. Rushing is the character who changes the most over the course of the movie. Because he is the one with whom most American viewers will identify, the series of ethical and political revelations that he unfolds configure our viewing response to the movie. This guarantees that Control Room will move American audiences through a potent range of ideas about Al-Jazeera, war, and state propaganda.
Control Room also demonstrates how reporting can drive experience, even in war. For example, the fact that an Al-Jazeera reporter. Tarek Ayyoub, was killed moments after being on camera increases the profile of his killing and magnifies its intensity for his co-workers and for the Iraqi public. Later, in response to a challenge by Ibrahim, Rushing defends the U.S. bombing of Baghdad, pointing out that the United States' devastation of the Iraqi capital is minimal compared to the Anglo-American carpet-bombing of European cities during the Second World War. But Ibrahim makes it clear to him that since Vietnam, the presence of news media in the battle-field has changed the ethical parameters by which combat is judged.
The episode of Rushing's career that began in Control Room has continued to evolve beyond the end of the film. After it was released, Rushing was repeatedly asked by the U.S. media to comment on it, though the Marines refused to allow him to do so. In an interview on NPR's Fresh Air in October, Rushing explained that he felt that the Marines' organizational inability to process the complexity of his situation rendered them unable to act in a positive way on the opportunities it presented. Now Rushing is a vocal advocate for Al-Jazeera, and feels very strongly that the United States should take it more seriously and not block Al-Jazeera from access to information. He ultimately felt that the Marines' inadequate response to Control Room reflected poorly on them as an organization, and, although he had been a lifelong military man, he quit.
Rushing's resignation from the military marks an "end" to the Control Room that can't be seen in the movie. However, it stands as a remarkable vindication of Al-Jazeera's ability to serve as a window to the truth at a time when American media has never been more subject to government control. Along with Fahrenheit 9/11, Control Room stands out as a crucial testimony to the fact that there are media-makers in the West who are resisting this trend.
Megan Shaw Prelinger is a writer and wildlife rehabilitator in San Francisco. She is a partner in the Prelinger Archives, and moonlights as an outsider librarian. Her projects are online at www.prelinger.net.
Prelinger, Megan Shaw. 2005. Making the news. Tikkun 20(1):76.