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Controlling the news?

Stewart Oksenhorn

In March of 2003, New York-based filmmaker Jehane Noujaim went to Doha, Qatar, to film a documentary on Al-Jazeera, the news-TV station headquartered in the capital of the tiny Persian Gulf nation. The timing could not have been more momentous for a look inside Al-Jazeera: The run-up to the U.S. invasion was raging, and the first wave of bombing came just two weeks after Noujaim arrived in the Middle East. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the toppling of the Taliban, and with war in Iraq imminent, the Arab world’s biggest news-TV station was making news of its own. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell had publicly denounced Al-Jazeera for unbalanced reporting, at best, and fanning the flames of hate toward America, at worst. (In addition to the timing, Noujaim’s location was fortuitous: Doha was just 20 miles from Central Command – Centcom – the U.S. military’s base of operations for the invasion of Iraq.)”Control Room,” Noujaim’s 86-minute documentary on Al-Jazeera, was first screened for the public at the Sundance Festival in January, where it sold out four showings. The film was released in mid-May and comes to Aspen’s SummerFilms series this week for two screenings, Sunday and Monday, Aug. 1-2, at Paepcke Auditorium. And in the year and a half since “Control Room” was shot, the documentary has become even more relevant and pressing. With the dissemination of the Abu Ghraib torture photos, the media’s acquiescent role in reporting Bush administration claims of Iraqi weaponry and ties to al-Qaida, and the broad popularity of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” journalistic issues have become critical in themselves. Seen now, “Control Room” has an ominous scope that was likely not as pronounced when it was shot.In fact, when Noujaim came back to the States in August 2003 to show a half-hour “selling film” version to potential distributors, she said “the reaction was not very positive. It was a very defensive reaction. I thought, maybe this film wouldn’t have a big reception here. There was a big feeling of supporting the troops, being patriotic.” But with a changing tide in the American public’s attitude toward the invasion of Iraq, audiences have warmed to “Control Room.” According to the movie-tracking Web site the-numbers.com, the film has brought in some $1.7 million, a fine figure for a tiny-budget documentary showing in a relative handful of theaters. “The film has taken on a life of its own because of n see ‘Control Room’ on page B11– continued from page B1how events in the world have changed the perception,” said Noujaim, who is at work on a DVD version of the film that will include 40 additional scenes. She says a critical turning point in American views of the coverage of the Iraq war came with the Jessica Lynch saga and how the initial tale of heroism was deflated with the later revelation of half-truths and military manipulations. “People thought, even if it was exaggerated, it was a heroic story. It took her coming out to say her story was manipulated.”Against a backdrop where the U.S. government forbids photographs of the coffins of its dead soldiers and The New York Times reports on its own failure to aggressively probe government claims, Al-Jazeera can be seen in a fresh light. One can think, maybe, that displaying graphic images of war casualties – in which Al-Jazeera traffics far more than any American news outlet – is not the greatest journalistic sin. Al-Jazeera has its biases, but in “Control Room” they come off only as egregious as those of Fox News, and maybe even less so. Noujaim, a 30-year-old of mixed European and Arab descent, set out to offer another view of Al-Jazeera and the Arab world. “When we decided to make the film, it wasn’t about the inner workings of Al-Jazeera,” said Noujaim, whose Egyptian-raised father has Lebanese and Syrian blood, whose mother is a WASP from Indiana, and who grew up in Kuwait and Egypt before attending boarding school near Boston, then Harvard University. “But of why the Arab world and the U.S. is seeing this conflict so differently. It’s to get inside the head of the other side. We haven’t had access to that in the U.S. It’s painful to see a country I care about and love so much, the U.S., not getting an understanding about how people feel about the country and what our country is doing abroad. Our foreign policy affects people’s daily lives.”I thought Al-Jazeera would be a good window into these perspectives.”To that end, “Control Room” follows a small handful of Al-Jazeera reporters, producers and newscasters, as well as CNN correspondent Tom Mintier and Lt. Josh Rushing, a Centcom press officer. In interviewing the Al-Jazeera journalists, and tracing their daily news decisions, the film shows them as a professional, sensitive, intelligent and independent lot. Two Al-Jazeera staff members in particular – Sameer Khader, the chain-smoking senior producer who could easily pass as an old-school American newspaper editor, and the erudite reporter Hassan Ibrahim – are depicted as upholders of journalistic values. While both are adamant in their beliefs that the American government has botched how the war is prosecuted and the American media mishandled how the war is portrayed, they are ambivalent about the actual decision to invade. They are anything but anti-Western: Khader says he would like to have his children educated in America; when Ibrahim is asked who is going to stop the United States, he responds, “I have absolute faith in the American Constitution. The American people are going to stop the American empire.” The two denounce Osama bin Laden as a matter of course. They have also been constant thorns in the sides of what they see as corrupt Middle Eastern regimes. Al-Jazeera is, in fact, continually having its bureaus shut down and its reporters detained in countries like Egypt and Jordan.Some of the more powerful moments in the film come, however, from the American side. In one scene, Lt. Rushing, after seeing photos of dead American soldiers followed by scenes of dead Iraqi civilians, wonders why the two images engender such disparate emotional reactions in him – and why it seems appropriate to broadcast one, while the other strikes him as inflammatory. In other sequences, Western reporters offer the highest praise to their counterparts at Al-Jazeera.One point “Control Room” fails to make is that the biggest reason for the perception that Al-Jazeera incites the Arab world is not its news division but its talk shows. Al-Jazeera has agenda-driven programs much like those on American cable-news channels, which create a forum for the most radical elements to spew their views.”The news programs are extremely careful in what they present,” said Noujaim, whose first film, co-directed with Chris Hegedus, was the well-received 2001 contemporary business documentary “Startup.com.” “And that’s very different than their debates. The news programs don’t have a patriotic slant. In their talk shows, they have people who are very anti-American.”Noujaim defends even this venomous programming. “These are thoughts that exist in the Arab world,” she said. “They’d consider it censorship not to have these opinions on the channel.” Having grown up largely on Egypt’s state-run news, Noujaim prefers Al-Jazeera’s freewheeling approach. “Silencing these voices has not done wonders for the Arab world. It’s created an underground of people with negative views about their governments.”Though Al-Jazeera is immensely popular – Noujaim says the satellite-broadcast station shows constantly in virtually every coffee shop in the vast Arab world and boasts an audience of some 40 million – and can be seen as part of the establishment, the station began operations only seven years ago. For all their experience and professional demeanor, newsmen like Khader and Ibrahim can resemble Woodward and Bernstein in their underdog role. There is a corporate slickness that seems to be lacking in Al-Jazeera’s makeup.”I think there’s something to being a scrappy upstart,” said Noujaim. “Al-Jazeera goes out on a limb. They make more mistakes, maybe. But the journalists say Al-Jazeera is braver than any other journalists.”While American politicians and pundits damn the station as a crucible for anti-Western passions, Noujaim sees Al-Jazeera as quite the opposite. An independent, aggressive press that allows a wide variety of opinions and sees its mission as serving as a check on the powerful – that sounds to her like a foundation of democracy.”I see Al-Jazeera as a positive force in bringing democracy to the region,” she said. “They focus on criticizing the centers of power, both in the Arab and American world.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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