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 imitators—satellite 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 mind—how 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 newsroom—the BBC had locked up exclusive rights—the 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.
Al Mirazi admits that some of the criticism leveled at the station is valid, and he is especially concerned about the tendency of some field reporters to editorialize. “But the problem is not really the effect Al Jazeera has on the Arab world,” he says. “The [issue] is the pressure Al Jazeera puts on editors and the government here.” This is the chorus from many of the channel’s correspondents—that the shouting coming from all sides just proves that the network is doing something right.
On a monitor, Cofer Black, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, is starting to look impatient. “Where’s Doha?” asks Al Mirazi, again.
Al Mirazi says he has seen Control Room, and has his concerns. “In general, I’m against giving too much access in ‘the kitchen,’ ” he says. “When you go into the kitchen and get an emotional and natural reaction . . . sometimes it gives the wrong impression. Like a doctor who is operating on a soldier. He walks outside the operating room and makes fun of the soldier. It doesn’t mean he’s not doing his job.”
Noujaim gets close to her subjects, consistent with her belief that “friendly filmmaking” moves her toward her own objectivity. “If you’re not close to the person,” she says, “they’re not going to feel relaxed and open enough to show you their weaknesses or their other sides.”
This is the same instinct that gets Al Jazeera in trouble. Its reporters have been accused of bias, and of cozying up to shady characters to get access. David Shuster, an NBC correspondent, was one of the few journalists allowed by a Western network to appear in Control Room. “Jazeera’s reporters are just as diligent and fair as any Western journalist,” he told the Voice. “And if you’re a hard-charging journalist, you’ll have contacts that are unsavory.”
Fans of Al Jazeera say it presents a subversive challenge to the victor’s account. Its critics say it exists to “incite” Arabs. Sameer Khader, the Al Jazeera producer who slouches and chain-smokes his way through Control Room, articulates a different mission. “To educate the Arab masses,” he says. “Wake up! Wake up! There is a world around you. You are still sleeping.”
Today, Lieutenant Rushing has been promoted to captain, and he works in Los Angeles, where he helps movie studios depict the Marine Corps. In a phone interview with the Voice—his first for Control Room—he remembers his time in Qatar as one of the most “profound moments” in his life.
In the film, Rushing seems a breed apart from his fellow military press officers, a man increasingly at odds with his government’s version of the world—especially the view of Al Jazeera. “People don’t understand what a complex organization Al Jazeera is. They say it’s all Islamists, or Baathists, or Arab nationalists. You have all that, but you have really progressive voices too,” he says. One of those progressive voices is correspondent Omar Al Issawi, who appears briefly in the film. Rushing and Al Issawi struck up a friendship, and would lunch together frequently. “He’s just a fascinating guy,” says Rushing. But the friendship caused friction with his American colleagues. “One guy told me I better check the name on my uniform, meaning the Marine Corps.”
Rushing says he avoided the news after he returned from the Middle East. He had just seen the pictures of the naked Iraqi prisoners, several days after they were released.
“I think it should all be shown, the dead on both sides,” he says. “In America war isn’t hell—we don’t see blood, we don’t see suffering. All we see is patriotism, and we support the troops. It’s almost like war has some brand marketing here.” Rushing says he will participate in some Q&A’s for Noujaim’s film. He was nervous at first, but is becoming less so.
“Al Jazeera shows it all,” he concludes. “It turns your stomach, and you remember there’s something wrong with war.”