There’s a certain unschooled line of thought running through many of the things being said about Jehain Noujaim’s documentary Control Room. Time and again, her “objectivity” is trotted out as something apparently surprising in the wake of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
I’m not sure what’s surprising. Noujaim’s previous work as co-director on Start-up.com and as a photographer on Down From the Mountain has been under the aegis of D.A. Pennebaker, the legendary father of the cinema verite documentary, in which the filmmaker’s voice never intrudes into the proceedings — except, of course, as concerns what is or isn’t shown. Noujaim actually breaks faith with the basics of the genre by identifying the interviewees and offering up a handful of explanatory or scene-setting titles — an inescapable departure in this case.
The thing is that Moore and Noujaim probably have similar goals — only she takes a different and more sober approach to achieving hers. Control Room doesn’t editorialize in the Moore sense. Indeed, the film never quite tells us whether its title refers to the control room at Arab satellite network Al Jazeera, or (more likely) the American military’s Central Command (called CentCom) news clearinghouse.
The basic premise — that the much-damned Al Jazeera is neither more, nor less, biased than the news as presented by its U.S. counterparts — is quickly established and surely won’t seem a blinding revelation to many who will elect to see this film. It’s the smaller details here that pack the most surprise. For instance, it’s interesting to see that Al Jazeera is just as heartily condemned by many Arab governments for being pro-American as it is vilified by Donald Rumsfeld for being pro-Arab. And it’s refreshing to see the Al Jazeera news crew openly admit that while they try to be objective, they’re definitely seeing things from an Arab point of view.
There are moments of absolutely chilling power, too: The moment where CentCom spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks shows up at a press conference with a “deck” of cards containing the names of the 55 “wanted-dead-or-alive” Iraqis that will be distributed throughout the country — and then refuses to show the cards to the press, provide a list of names, or offer any documentation. Even mainstream Western journalists were outraged at this real-life enactment of the sort of thing that seems straight out of the original Manchurian Candidate, with its never-seen and ever-shifting list of “enemies of America.”
Equally disturbing is the question the film raises over whether Al Jazeera was accidentally attacked by our military … or was it a case of something more sinister at work? That’s never answered, but it remains clear that none of the Al Jazeera news people are the raving anti-American propagandists that they’ve been painted by our government. Indeed, the head of their news bureau announces that he’d like nothing more than to trade in “the Arab nightmare for the American dream,” and that he plans that his children should be educated in the U.S., and then stay there. What none of these people care for is the idea that Iraq is — for all intents and purposes — being told to democratize, or else.
It’s also instructive to see things we didn’t see on U.S. news — the statue of Saddam being pulled down in an empty city square, and without the cheering Iraqis spliced into the version we were given as news, not to mention that the military assumed that Iraqis yelling something with the name “Bush” in it was cheering, without ever bothering to find out that what they were saying was … well, less than complimentary.
Serving as a kind of counterpoint to it all is the American Lt. Josh Rushing, who is willing to listen to the Arab side of things and emerges — even if some of his remarks sound ingenuous in our post-Abu Grhaib worldview — as the true voice of the American conscience. His understanding and compassion for the Arab world grows as the film progresses. So it’s not surprising that he was subsequently forbidden to comment on the film by the U.S. military — nor perhaps that he was reported to be planning to leave the Marine Corps.
Will this film create any converts? Probably not. But it might at least make you stop and think the next time you hear something on the news that’s presented as gospel. In order for that to happen, though, you’ll have to see the film — and once again, I’ll warn you that it probably won’t be around very long. Documentaries rarely are.
Don’t be like those people who asked me where Zatoichi was playing two days after it closed. See Control Room this week!
– reviewed by Ken Hanke