One of the first words spoken in Jehane Noujaim's captivating documentary is "propaganda." This is fitting, since the question of who is controlling the truth goes to the very heart of her film, which follows events at Al Jazeera, the largest Arab news network, during the war in Iraq. At once a clear-eyed document of the war, an inquiry into the way events are filtered into "news," and a complex, surprising portrait of the personalities behind the scenes, "Control Room" is a must-see movie.
The initial shots are bound to reinforce stereotypes: in the network's headquarters in Qatar, shaded by palm trees, men in Muslim headgear are working the controls, jeering at the monitors when President Bush gives the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein which will lead to war. But when Samir Khader, the network's senior producer, speaks about his commitment to democracy, openness, and free speech, and reporter Hassan Ibrahim insists that he has unwavering faith in the American constitution, the stereotypical image of the inflammatory network that incites the "Arab street" begins to crumble. What are we to make of the fact that Khader professes he would love to work for Fox News?
At the American PR headquarters, press liaison Lt. Josh Rushing emerges as an equally contradictory personality. Surprisingly open, the former Hollywood contact for the military seems to genuinely believe in his mission, and appears hopelessly bewildered when his apparent good intentions meet with suspicion and worse.
"Control Room" is also a document of a vastly different perspective on the war in Iraq. Al Jazeera showed footage of the bloodied, wounded, mutilated, and the dead, images of the true cost of war that were largely absent from American TV. The network was called "Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece" and attacked by Donald Rumsfeld for inciting anger and "being subjective." But as Al Jazeera producer Deema Khatib puts it, if there really was no agenda, wouldn't we welcome all information, all images? Isn't omission, the failure to report dead civilians or American coffins, equally a distortion of the truth? Can real images be propaganda?
Al Jazeera paid very little attention to Jessica Lynch, whose story CNN correspondent Tim Mintier characterizes as an attempt to manage the news and "bury the lead" on the day of the coalition forces' entry into Baghdad. From an Arab perspective, the famous toppling of Saddam's statue and the death of an Al Jazeera reporter in a US air strike also appear in a very different light.
But Noujaim does her best not to add another layer of distortions to the already highly charged topic and wisely avoids all Michael Moore style editorializing. In the spirit of welcoming all information, she refuses to draw conclusions--these are left to the audience. Even the most staunch supporter of President Bush's "with us or against us" rhetoric will find "Control Room" a fascinating look over our medial horizon, and a necessary reminder that all news is manufactured.