Control Room

Shot in the offices of Al-Jazeera in Doha, Qatar, and the nearby Coalition Media Center of the U.S. Central Command, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary Control Room is not about the merits of Operation Iraqi Freedom, nor the bias of the satellite television news channel. Noujaim instead listens to reporters, producers, editors and spinners trying to make sense of the war. Their allegiances and ambivalences, skilfully elicited by the film’s Egyptian-American director, add up to a nuanced meditation on the media and their impact in the Middle East.

President Bush does not do “nuance.” In an April 4, 2002 interview with Sir Trevor McDonald, ITV Network’s news host, our commander-in-chief spelled out his duty: “look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think.” (1) Noujaim, who shot most of Control Room , never tells us what she thinks. But she does do “nuance” “Different Channels. Different Truths” is the relativist tagline on her website for Control Room. Al-Jazeera, which can be translated from Arabic as either “the oasis” or “the peninsula”, advertises its Arabic-language programming with a like-minded tagline: “One opinion and the other opinion” (al-rai w’al rai al-akher) Despite the formal gulf separating Noujaim’s unnarrated cinema-verite film and the slick CNN-styled exclusive-seeking television network, their slogans indicate comparable attitudes towards viewers.

On October 20, 2001 Vice-President Dick Cheney alerted the emir of Qatar that Al-Jazeera will be seen as “Osama’s outlet to the world” since it aired bin Laden’s video dispatches from Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice continually demonise the station as a tool of terrorists. Al-Jazeera was later slammed in the U.S.and U.K. for uplinking clips of Iraqi Television reporters badgering five Coalition force captives: “Why do you come from Texas to Iraq?” and “You come to kill Iraqi people?” The White House perceives an anti-American slant, yet Al-Jazeera sees itself as an outlet for certain American values – such as open debate and a free press – besides those mouthed by Bush and his cabinet every time the station airs their translated speeches and interviews. The channel’s long-term impact on the Middle East may be the democratic ethos it imparts to its viewers, who according to a title in Control Room number 40 million.

Staffed with BBC-trained journalists who pronounce countdowns in English for cues in the Control Room, and funded by its host emirate of Qatar, Al-Jazeera may illustrate the mantra of the late Canadian English prof Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message”. The western liberal ideal of arbitrating truth from multiple perspectives is transmitted by Al-Jazeera’s competitive journalism, spiked with contentious talk shows and uncensored call-in programs. The fare on the 24-hour channel, which debuted in November 1996 after BBC Arabic Television went off the air the previous April, is radically unlike the state-controlled broadcasts traditionally aired in the region. Is Al-Jazeera softening up Islamic oil monarchies for regime change? Does exposing viewers in undemocratic Arab states to dialectically opposed opinions merely draw eyeballs for advertisers, or are Al-Jazeera’s regulars a nascent constituency? Those are more intriguing issue than whether Al-Jazeera is simply a pan-Arab, transnational foil to Fox TV News.

Control Room recalls The War Room (1993), a cinema-verite documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker with a similar behind-the-scenes focus: an inside look at two media-spinning campaign managers running Bill Clinton’s 1992 Democratic presidential campaign. Chris Hegedus and Jahane Noujaim co-directed Startup.com (2003), an inside chronicle of two founders of an Internet venture to put government services online. Aiming to make democracy more user-friendly, the duo in the film made a promotional video with the lines: “You have the right to apply for a fishing license at 3:15 in the morning” and “You have the right to attend a town meeting in your underwear.”

The documentary style of Control Room is itself democratic, in a sense. Noujaim leaves her material open to interpretation, trusting viewers to weigh the points made by the journalists and spokespeople she observes without on-camera comment, unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004), which lists a fact-checker in its credits, or The Corporation (Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, 2003). Noujaim presents “characters”, as she calls them, and grounds Control Room in engaging individuals doing their jobs of making sense of the war in Iraq.

An admirer of the character-centered documentaries of D.A. Pennebaker, Noujaim also helped him and Hegedus shoot their documentaries, Down From the Mountain (2000) and Only the Strong Survive (2002.) Pennebaker’s 1966 cinema-verite portrait of Bob Dylan drew notice for its intimate, handheld, and seemingly unstructured film style at odds with documentary practice of the time, which he attacked in a 1970 interview: “My definition of a documentary film is a film that decides you don’t know enough about something… There’s a lot of things I don’t know about, but I can’t stand having someone telling me that. That’s what the [television] networks do.” Articulating an aesthetic largely shared by other late ’60s American documentary-makers – Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Frederick Wiseman and Maysles Brothers – Pennebaker advocated an alternative to “voice-of-God” narrators and formal interviews: “On the other hand, it’s posssible to go into a situation and simply film what happens there, what goes on, and let everybody decide whether it tells them about any of these things.” (2)

Noujaim did not know what was going on in Iraq last spring so she shot 200 hours of tape of people at Al-Jazeera struggling to find out. She showed up at the station three weeks before the war started and says she just hung out at the guard office for a week until she could upgrade her access. “I was hoping maybe another bin Laden tape would be dropped off at the station” she admitted before a recent Chicago screening. Originally funded as by the BBC, she discovered her plan of documenting Al-Jazeera covering the war was passed along to BBC director Ben Anthony, whose report Al-Jazeera Exclusive (2003) was screened at Chicago Filmmakers last winter. One reason Noujaim’s documentary is titled Control Room is that Anthony got exclusive access to the news room at Al-Jazeera, which left her to shoot elsewhere, including the control room where we see a producer cuing a live feed of President Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum speech to Saddam Hussein.

Control Room

We enounter three main characters in Control Room. They drew Noujaim’s attention because they supplied perspectives on the war she sought to grasp. Al-Jazeera’s senior news producer Samir Khader itemises part of his station’s agenda: “to educate the Arab masses on something called democracy, respect of the other opinion, the free debate, really free debate.” It’s easy to see why some regional regimes might see him as a Westerniser when he grows more animated and adds: “To shake up these rigid societies, to awaken them, tell them wake up, wake up. There’s a world around you, something’s happening in the world, you are still sleeping, wake up. This is the message of Al-Jazeera.” Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a Central Command press officer assigned to serve representatives of the Arab media, analyses the realpolitik of marketing news: “It benefits Al Jazeera to play their Arab nationalism because that’s their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism, for the exact same reason, American nationalism, because of that’s their demographic audience and that’s what they want to see.” Al-Jazeera correspondent Hassan Ibrahaim, who went to the University of Arizona and later worked for BBC Arabic Television, asks “Who can stop the United States?” and answers: “The United States is going to stop the United States. I have absolute confidence in the United States constitution. I have absolute confidence in the American people.”

Noujaim’s intent in Control Room is to report on being there in the offices, hallways, and editing rooms in Doha, where these ideas are debated, not to find out what actually happened some 700 miles away in the streets of Baghdad:

The most that you can do in a documentary is to make it as close to the confusion or the challenges or the excitement or the depression you felt at that time. And I guess that’s where my truth lies. If I feel, watching the film, as a mirror in a way, some emotions I was feeling while I was filming it, then I feel I’ve accomplished something close to the truth (3).

The emotion most effectively articulated in Control Room is fear when Noujaim’s camera races through the station when the first bombs and missiles hit Baghdad. For audio she overlays the din of detonations so the scene feels as if the Al-Jazeera staff is fleeing in panic, scrambling under siege.

But most of the emotion in Control Room is understated and expressed by Noujaim’s “characters” in unguarded moments. Bush’s alleged crusade for democracy bears the brunt of the off-air asides she records. In one scene Ibrahaim hums a mordid ditty at the expense of Uncle Sam to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. In another he grunts, “Democracy!” at a video screen in response to a shot of an explosion, and later mimes pointing a gun and says sarcastically “’Democratise or I’ll shoot you’? It just doesn’t work this way.” In a clip the station aired, one Iraqi man treats an Al-Jazeera microphone as a direct line to the White House: “Welcome to my house, Bush… Where is your humanity? Where is your conscience? Where is your God?” Another man, blood-soaked and bandaged, yells into Al-Jazeera’s lens: “I don’t want this freedom! I don’t want this democracy! My brother and his children are dead. Here is the blood to prove it.”

Al-Jazeera is a venue for blunt invective against Bush’s brand of democracy and Control Room relays samples of that sentiment from broadcasts, but neither the station nor the film investigate any charges: never is an anti-American accusation debunked or backed-up. Noujaim never indicates who she agrees with so you must decide who to believe; it’s up to you to check out if what they say is true. In one scene Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld gives reporters his critique of Al-Jazeera:

What they do is when there is a bomb goes down they grab some children and some women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children… And to the extent people lie, ultimately they are caught lying and they lose their credibilty and one would think that wouldn’t take very long for that to happen… Truth ultimately finds its way to people’s ears and eyes and hearts and I don’t worry about that over the long term.

And Noujaim also shows Al-Jazeera manager Joanne Tucker telling an American TV reporter that “the word ‘objectivity’ is almost a mirage.”

Control Room

“Documentary has the potential to shift the new world image order into more democratic spaces”, wrote Patricia R. Zimmerman in her book States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies (4). However, independent films such as Control Room are outgunned by other media. The “world democratic movement” Bush extolled in his November 6, 2003 address on the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. requires weaponry less nuanced and ambivalent than Noujaim’s film.

On February 14, the United States set up in Springfield, Virginia its own Arab-language satellite television news station called Al-Hurrah (“the free one”) and aimed its signal at 22 Middle Eastern countries to counter Al-Jazeera’s supposed anti-American bias. In an interview, Bush told the station’s news director, Mouafac Harb: “I believe the Almighty God’s gift to every person in the world is freedom.” “Our brand is freedom and democracy”, Harb testified before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism on April 29. “Our role is not to be a mouthpiece of the U.S. government”, he told CBS News’ Ed Bradley in a May 16 segment on 60 Minutes. That same day a lower profile effort to counter Al-Jazeera was posted on the public affairs website of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Los Angeles charity Spirit of America donated over $80,000 worth of audio and video equipment for 1st Marine Division to hand out to seven local news stations in the Al Anbar province. “This will not be a Coalition-controlled media outlet”, stated Lt. Col. John Lutkenhouse. “But they will be required to not put out anti-Coalition propaganda.” (5)

A pre-war effort to democratise via media almost became the subject of a documentary by Noujaim. In early 2002, she began shooting Western-educated Arabs conducting focus groups on America’s image with Cairo college students. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the U.S. State Department assigned Charlotte Beers, its new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Pubilc Affairs, to concoct an ad campaign to brighten America’s brand in the Middle East. The Cairo office of the advertising, marketing and public relations company Promoseven was sub-contracted as a cover to do the politically sensitive research, and let Noujaim record the process.

Noujaim shot about a hundred hours of video over five months and lent the ad agency her tapes, but never got them back from managing director Maha Abouelenein. She does not buy the agency’s story that Egyptian authorities raided the office and confiscated her cassettes. Political discussions by four or more people are supposedly deemed seditious in Egypt, but Noujaim believes that someone feared an image-backfire from her behind-the-scenes work-in-progress. At first she identified with the young Westernised Arab researchers trying to straddle a perceptual gulf between America and the Middle East. Now she is turned off by her subjects in Cairo and their handlers in Washington: “I didn’t find them very inspiring any more when the president of the company stole my tapes.”

Endnotes

  1. Bush Says U.S. Acting to Stop Erosion of Mideast Peace Conditions, April 4, 2002”, Panoptic World website, accessed September 2004.
  2. D.A. Pennebaker, interviewed in G. Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Film-Makers, Doubleday, New York, 1971.
  3. All Noujaim quotes from interview with the author.
  4. Patricia R. Zimmermann, States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies, 2000.
  5. Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald, “Marines Prepare to Distribute Gear for Unbiased Iraqi Media”, May 16, 2004, accessed September 2004.