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There are moments in Jehane Noujaim's well-timed documentary about the satellite television channel Al Jazeera when the measureless breach between Arab and Western political narratives appears to narrow, if only for an instant, before widening again.
A third of the way through Control Room (opening May 21 at Film Forum), a young American military spokesman reflects on Al Jazeera's explicit depictions of those killed during the war in Iraq. "The night they showed the P.O.W.'s and dead soldiers . . . it was powerful, because Americans won't show those kinds of images," says Lieutenant Josh Rushing, perhaps the film's most compelling figure. "It made me sick to my stomach."
Those images, of soldiers from Private Jessica Lynch's company, produced an uproar in the U.S. and Britain. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Al Jazeera of violating the Geneva Conventions. For Rushing, who suffers an education over the course of Control Room, the pictures evoked a different sensation, and in the film he recalls Al Jazeera's coverage from the night before the Lynch episode, of civilians killed and wounded in a "bombing" in Basra.
"They were equally if not more horrifying," he admits, "and I remember having seen it, in the Al Jazeera offices, and thought to myself, 'That's gross, that's bad,' and then going away, probably to dinner or something.
"It didn't affect me as much," Rushing says. "It upset me on a profound level that I wasn't bothered as much."
Control Room was filmed over six weeks in Doha, Qatar, at Al Jazeera's headquarters, and at U.S. Central Command (Centcom). Noujaim and her co-producer, Hani Salama, followed Rushing and Al Jazeera journalists Sameer Khader and Hassan Ibrahim. "I make films about people," says Noujaim, whose first feature film (co-directed with Chris Hegedus), Startup.com, chronicled the rise and fall of a dotcom company, focusing on the relationship of its two founders. "You look for characters who will be challenged," she says. "They're testing themselves."
Noujaim's approach was simple enough, but her subject, Al Jazeera, has become perhaps the most important television station in the world, and a magnet for controversy since its birth in 1996. Today, Al Jazeera (Arabic for "the Island") claims some 45 million viewers worldwide. (Comparisons are difficult, but CNN International is available on 170 million sets worldwide.) It is widely regarded as the first independent television network in the Middle East, despite receiving more than half of its funding from the government of Qatar. The frank discussion of taboo topics has earned the station the enmity of most Arab governments. And since September 11, Al Jazeera's omnipresence in Afghanistan and Iraq has left the channel, for the most part, on the wrong side of the U.S. government. The station has inspired imitatorssatellite networks like the Dubai-based Al Arabiya, anxious for a slice of Al Jazeera's market share, and non-Arab stations as well (last February, the U.S. government launched its own Arabic-language channel).
Before last year's invasion of Iraq, Noujaim spent time in her native Cairo after another documentary she had started fell apart, watching a lot of Al Jazeera. "There were all these amazing debates, on the veil, the role of religion in government, Shariah law," she recalls. "The idea of news creation was also on my mindhow you'd see the exact same event covered totally differently." She realized that the flowering of Arab media outlets meant that for the first time during a major news story, Al Jazeera would feel the pressure of competition. After a spell in New York, she made her way to Qatar, where she convinced Khader and Ibrahim to let her film them. And though she was barred from Al Jazeera's newsroomthe BBC had locked up exclusive rightsthe network brass let her hang out in the café. "That's where all the best action happens," she says.
Al Jazeera's studios, in a nondescript office building a few blocks from the White House, are encased in exposed sheetrock, lined with patch cables, and staffed by frenzied young producers.
Hafez Al Mirazi, a former reporter for the BBC and the Voice of America, is Al Jazeera's Washington bureau chief, and the figure that most of the action in this small office seems to hover around. "We are understaffed," he says, between cell phone conversations with headquarters in Doha. On a bank of monitors behind him, a correspondent starts his report from the White House lawn, on President Bush's testimony to the 9-11 Commission. Then he disappears. "What happened?" Al Mirazi yells. "It wasn't us, it was Doha," a young associate replies. Al Mirazi sinks back into his chair. "C'mon, people. We need to get him back."
This is the day that photos of Iraqi prisoners apparently tortured by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison start to hit the airwaves. In just a few days, American officials will scramble to deliver their message to the Arab masses over channels like this one. But today, the station is still a pariah. Colin Powell has just complained to Qatar's foreign minister about Al Jazeera's coverage of Iraq.
Still, Al Mirazi, for all the chaos in the office, seems calm. Or maybe just exhausted. He says all the anti-Al Jazeera commentary has probably put correspondents in the U.S. in some peril. "They've said we endanger U.S. troops. So we don't really advertise where our office is." He points to a television screen in front of him, a report from a correspondent in the then besieged city of Fallujah. "This is what the U.S. officials don't like," he says.