Friday, June 18, 2004

Review of Control Room

[Al Jazeera journalist Tariq Ayoub, right before being killed by a U.S. bomb]

In 2001, Jehane Noujaim was one of the directors of, one of the best documentaries of that year. I had family members who were working for tech startups in the bay area at that time (startups that were, it now turns out, doomed), and the incredible rise and fall of that particular pair of ambitious young men was profoundly fascinating to me. The story told itself.

Control Room is also good, though it is much harder to watch. It leaves you with more questions than answers; maybe that's due to its more ambitious, and more chaotic, choice of subject. Still, this review, by Joshua Tanzer in OffOffOff is certainly much too harsh. And yet, despite his dislike for the film, Tanzer writes some of the most compelling praise for the film I've seen in any review:

If the "Control Room" grab bag yields one worthwhile observation, it is the difference between the thoroughly managed American press corps, taking its daily handouts from military spokesman several countries away from the action, and the Al Jazeera crews getting the news firsthand from Iraqis on the ground. The Americans know they're being herded like cattle, and yet their lack of perspective keeps them from understanding what they're missing. Some are more clueless frat boys than seasoned observers of Middle Eastern affairs.

This is the crucial distinction of the war coverage in 2003-2004, as it was in 1991. When a war consists primarily of aerial bombing, there are two ways to cover the story, and one of them is wrong. The story as seen from the American side consists of some people pushing buttons in airplanes and returning to base, mission accomplished. The real story, however, is visible only from the ground, where the effects of those bombs are felt. The Arab networks were there, while the Westerners (with the notable exception of the British paper The Independent) were not. The war, and its effect on Iraqi morale, look completely different from the "Mission Accomplished" view we got in the U.S.

The Arab journalists, in short, were doing their jobs. U.S. journalists, generally speaking, were not.

Other Critics Though Control Room is scoring a 96% approval rating in the 'Tomatometer', there are a number of American reviewers who have been critical. This review, by Keith Uhlich in Slant magazine, accuses Noujaim of some pro-Al Jazeera bias. That bias is real, but I wasn't bothered by it in the film. In fact, the 'slant' of Control Room effectively deflates the immense and overwhelming pro-US bias in last year's 'embedded' war coverage. Stanley Kauffman, in The New Republic, disagrees, saying that in fact the current era is of media 'bilateralism'; according to him, these images and viewpoints were available in the U.S. even last year. I disagree with Kaufmann -- it's technically true, but doesn't change the fact that the vast majority of Americans only saw one side of the story.

Have you heard of Tariq Ajoub The film brings up a disturbing example of media unilateralism that might not be familiar to people: there was a Coalition attack on April 8 2003 on Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV offices in Baghdad. The U.S. claimed that hostile fire was coming from the building where the Al Jazeera reporters were located, a claim which hasn't been verified (or disproved). But what is disturbing is that the Arab networks that were bombed that morning were in three separate houses. To me, that repetition makes it highly likely that the bombings were specifically targeting the Arab reporters. The film interprets the gesture as more a threat to Al Jazeera -- back off, or else -- and not a direct assault. Threat or no, an Al Jazeera reporter named Tariq Ayoub was killed in the attack. It was big news in the rest of the world, but reporters here in the U.S. didn't ask too many questions or point fingers.

Ultimately, what Control Room offers is the awareness that no one can really be sure of the evidence they see -- not Arabs or western progressives, not pro-US hawks. It's not that objectivity doesn't exist; rather, it's almost impossible to evaluate evidence for current media on either side while events are still in play, because there is never enough reliable information with which to do so. The following words, from A.O. Scott in the New York Times, strike me as just:

The great value of the impersonal, observational technique Ms. Noujaim employs is that it immerses the viewer in the contingency and complexity of events as they happen. Whatever your opinions about the war, the conduct of the journalists who covered it and the role of Al Jazeera in that coverage, you are likely to emerge from "Control Room" touched, exhilarated and a little off-balance, with your certainties scrambled and your assumptions shaken. All of which makes it an indispensable example of the inquisitive, self-questioning democratic spirit that is its deep and vexed subject.

The lines in the film from Rumsfeld ("Once someone begins lying, how can you trust them?") and Bush ("I hope they [the American POWs] are being treated humanely") are now so obviously and fatally ironic that Al-Jazeera's bias, as well as the bias of Noujaim, do seem to be in closer proximity of the truth than CNN and NBC. (See Nathan Newman's blog on this)

As mentioned earlier, there are challenges to watching this film. The Al-Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim (who used to work for the BBC) is often entertaining, but he is used too much. And as Danzer points out, the coverage is banal at times -- I would almost have preferred the raw Jazeera coverage itself. And the editing is raw; it made me feel edgy and nervous (it's certainly not "relentlessly entertaining" as Megan Lehmann put it in the New York Post). I know this is part of the Pennebaker vérité style... still.

Bottom line: I recommend Control Room. Even if you walk away from it feeling disturbed edgy, you'll be glad you saw it.

[UPDATE: See Chuck Tryon's post on the film]

[Second update: this post has been tweaked a little for clarity & continuity]


chutry said...

I liked, too, although I found the alpha-male guy almost unbearable. Noujaim really captured the dotcom experience very effectively.

4:03 PM  

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