Control Room (8/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

Leni Riefenstahl was a talented German filmmaker in the 1930s.  Her films, most notably Triumph of the Will (1934), are controversial today because, while they are extraordinarily potent and innovative accomplishments as art, many of them were made as propaganda for Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party. Control Room shows that Arab-American director Jehane Noujaim is a talented filmmaker and also a diabolical propagandist in the Riefenstahl mold.

It’s difficult to sit through this documentary about the biased Al Jazeera news organization calmly. But what you must keep in mind is that this presents a clear explanation of any negative reputation the United States might have in the Arab world. Much of the Arab world apparently gets its information from these people.

Al Jazeera was formed in 1996, staffed chiefly by former members of the disbanded BBC Arabic Television. Any idea, however, that Control Room is an objective film is dispelled by the production notes, which describe the Al Jazeera founders as “all of them strong believers in the BBC ethos of balance and fairness.” BBC “ethos of balance and fairness?” That’s like taking about Hitler’s gentility. When one considers the obvious BBC bias against the United States and the Iraq situation, this was my first tipoff that the filmmakers are not just benign, objective observers, but have a definite point of view.

Item: the film shows many interviews with Iraqis who verbally attack the United States presence and actions. Not one Iraqi or Arab is interviewed supporting the American assault on Saddam. If these interviews were presented as interviews that Al Jazeera shows to its audience, it would be an appropriate representation of what the Arab world is seeing. But these interviews are not represented as Al Jazeera content. Rather, they appear to be interviews conducted by Noujaim. To watch Control Room, one would think that every Iraqi, bar none, is anti-American and hates the fact that America deposed Saddam. It’s not reasonable to believe there are no Iraqis who support the American overthrow of Saddam. These interviews, if they are not Al Jazeera content, have no place in this film except to exert an anti American influence on the audience.

Item: American forces are shown attacking and treating prisoners the way prisoners on a battlefield should be treated, telling them to get down and stay down and pushing them down if they don’t obey. Not one mention is made of the million Iraqis massacred by Saddam or the dangers faced by American forces. The way these scenes are edited, American soldiers are represented as brutes. In fact, on the battlefield, and in a guerilla war situation, soldiers must be wary of everyone. The treatment shown is appropriate for the situation, but the situation is never explained. Rather, the situation is presented in such a way that there’s a clear implication that this is the way American soldiers treat all ordinary Iraqis. As with the interviews with negative Iraqis, these scenes are presented by Noujaim, not as Al Jazeera content. As such, they are irrelevant to an examination of Al Jazeera. Rather, they are presented to influence a point of view about American activity in Iraq, and that’s not what the movie is represented to be about.

One of the main characters is an Al Jazeera interpreter who interprets President Bush’s speeches with obvious disdain. Later he’s shown saying that what’s needed are fair-minded people like him to bring people what’s really happening. “Fair minded?” Yeah, like Hitler was fair-minded. You can see this man seething with antagonism as he translates the speeches of President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

If Control Room accomplishes anything, it proves the point that Al Jazeera is a closed-minded, anti-American propaganda organization with one theme only, defame America and its effort to combat terrorism and bring freedom and democracy to Iraq. Although it seemed to me to be unintentional, it clearly shows the bias of the people who are bringing much of the news of the war to the Arab people. It is as virulently anti-American as any film you will ever see.

One of Noujaim’s tactics is to show President Bush making a speech, then show scenes that seem to contradict what he just said, such as a quote from some “even-handed” Al Jazeera staffer, like the disdainful journalist Hassan Ibrahim, or the equally scornful Al Jazeera Senior Producer, Samir Khader, to the opposite effect. Al Jazeera always has the last word.

In order to provide a veneer of “balance,” Noujaim presents Tom Mintier, a CNN correspondent, hardly someone to balance an anti-American view. Had she had someone from Fox (where was Geraldo?) or a network that isn’t so heavily identified with the left, it might have been more meaningful. But Mintier comes across as mocking of American efforts as the Al Jazeera ideologues.

The only sympathetic person presented, from an American point of view, is Lt. Josh Rushing, the Central Command Press Officer, who articulately shows the objectivity so blatantly missing from the other side and from Noujaim.

It is difficult to recommend a film that is so biased and so deviously manipulated in what it chooses to show and tell. But if Americans are to understand why there is such apparent animosity among many Arabs, this is a must see. It explains the mindset of Al Jazeera, which represents itself as the network of choice for much of the Arab world.

This could have been an exceptional film, had it shown any tendency to objectivity. Had it mentioned some of Saddam’s atrocities, had it shown some sympathetic scenes of American soldiers fighting and dying for Iraqi freedom, had it explained why American soldiers, when they capture people, must initially treat them as combatants, had it questioned some of the Al Jazeera people as intensely as Rushing is questioned, had it shown the other side of the allegations the Al Jazeera people make, it would have been far more efficacious. Or, had it limited itself to showing only Al Jazeera content, instead of making its own editorial statements, it would have given itself more validity. As it is, it stands only as a peek into the mindset of the bias of Al Jazeera. That much is good. It takes a careful viewing not to reach a conclusion that these people are objective and that their anti-American views are correct. What’s bad is the way Control Room is edited and the choice of what to present and show, which makes the film as biased as Al Jazeera. Opens June 18 in limited release.

June 8, 2004

The End