Control Room (8/10)
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.
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.
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
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
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