By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In Control Room, Noujaim’s fly-on-the-wall approach has its drawbacks. The lack of any voice-over commentary or narration sometimes means a lack of context too. Though she says that the film is about “information, how it’s controlled and how it’s conveyed,” there’s some striking information that’s missing. For instance, we are never informed that, despite its reputation for being fearless, Al-Jazeera has been reluctant to criticize its host country, Qatar, and in fact hardly reports on it at all. Nor is there any explanation or analysis of why Tarek Ayoub, the Al-Jazeera reporter killed by an American missile, is repeatedly referred to as a “martyr” and given a warrior’s funeral in Jordan. Most seriously, perhaps, one hears nothing of the many allegations of corruption that have been brought against the network, including specific charges that some of its reporters were on Saddam Hussein’s payroll.
If you listen to Mamoun Fandy, the Egyptian author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, you get a very different image of Al-Jazeera from the one seen in the film. At a debate about the network held by the Center for Law and Security at New York University on April 27, he characterized the Al-Jazeera product as “politics” rather than “news.” He said that 60 percent of the channel’s staff are members of the Muslim Brotherhood and spoke of watching an Al-Jazeera talk show in which a guest was allowed to theorize freely that Jews are descended from pigs and monkeys. He depicted a news culture in which stories are frequently manufactured and in which Western standards of verification and investigation are often dispensed with completely. “You cannot understand Al-Jazeera without understanding Arab politics,” he stated. “Its authoritarianism, the whole idea of bribery and corruption. If you think Al-Jazeera is CNN, you must be smoking something illegal.”
But if you listen to Lisa Wedeen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago referred to me by Juan Cole, the liberal Middle East scholar behind the influential blog Informed Comment, the picture of Al-Jazeera that emerges is far less disturbing. Wedeen says she values the station’s Middle East coverage over CNN’s and believes that its political talk shows are superior to the ones we see in America.
“Al-Jazeera journalists tend to have less deference for their guests than their American counterparts,” she wrote in an e-mail. “In The Opinion and the Other Opinion, the anchorperson typically begins by delivering a brief monologue that expresses one view — for example, that Americans are imperialists who invaded Iraq for material gains. And then the anchor flips and delivers the contrasting view — for example, that Americans went into Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people and establish democracy. The conversation that ensues generally complicates the two positions and in ways that allow for serious, rational arguments in public.”
As usual when it comes to the Middle East, it’s hard to get warring analysts to agree on anything. Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security, which put on the debate at NYU, emphasized that very few people in the West understand what Al-Jazeera is really about or how it works financially, ethically or journalistically. “We’re all desperately trying to catch up,” she said.
Noujaim says that some of the questions raised by the film will be addressed when Control Roomcomes out on DVD, and that there simply wasn’t time to go into them given its current 84-minute length. “You have to go with what intrigues you, and I’m much more interested in figuring out what motivates Hassan or Samir or Josh Rushing personally than whether Al-Jazeera was being completely accurate in its news coverage or not. My loyalty was to try and represent my characters as truthfully as I could.”
Inevitably, there is something a bit unsatisfying about this approach. Since Noujaim doesn’t speak enough Arabic to understand everything said on Al-Jazeera — “When I tried to speak Arabic with her, she couldn’t get one single word,” Khader told me in some astonishment — what might have been an opportunity to dispel some of the obfuscation that surrounds the channel is lost. Instead, she serves up an impressionistic portrait that avoids tough questions, or directs most of them at the Americans. By refusing to be heard asking questions, she was even forced to leave out what might have been a key moment in the film. At one point, she told me, she asked Khader whether he supported the war, and his answer was surprisingly ambivalent. (“Let’s wait and see” was what it amounted to.) But Noujaim omitted the scene because it occurred during a conversation in which her own voice could be heard. Hassan Ibrahim, on the other hand, talks incessantly about the war, generally in the most scornful terms, and no problems of cinematic technique interfere with the delivery of his message.
Much in Control Roomis memorable, however: the portrayal of the Al-Jazeera reporters and staff, particularly Khader; the robotic banality of many of the CentCom officers; the bleached, lunar atmosphere of Doha itself. (The film ends, poetically, with a cleansing rainfall.) There are also some zingers. Two months ago, the clip in which President Bush is shown promising an end to torture in Iraq wouldn’t have attracted comment. Now it will be greeted with groans, or possibly jeers, as will the scene in which the military sells the media on the discredited Jessica Lynch story. On the other hand, when a female Al-Jazeera producer claims that the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square looks staged, in part because there are no women on the street, you have to laugh. Judging from the news footage from Iraq and elsewhere, one could be forgiven for thinking there were almost no women in the Middle East at all. But on this point Khader was adamant. “We are convinced at Al-Jazeera that those people who were demonstrating and enjoying the toppling of the statue were not from Iraq,” he told me.