For many Americans, the name al-Jazeera is inextricably linked with that of Osama bin Laden. After all, the fugitive al-Qaeda leader almost exclusively uses the Arabic network to continue to broadcast his threats and taunt his pursuers. For more than 40 million Arab TV viewers, though, the seven-year-old channel is their most trustworthy source of news, a pillar of expert journalism from a region in which freedom of the press is hardly an inalienable right.
As a result, America dismisses al-Jazeera’s authority at great risk. And American news organizations further destabilize Arab-American relations through indifference to the Arab perspective. This, at any rate, is the challenging thesis of Control Room, Jehane Noujaim’s anxiety-provoking documentary about how the light of truth shifts when filtered through a screen of nationalism, Arab or American. Or as they might say on Fox News, ”Fair and balanced, sez who? Sez we!”
Noujaim, the Egyptian-American producer-codirector of the engrossing 2001 snapshot-of-an-era documentary ”Startup.com,” bases her timely study of parallel perceptions in Doha, Qatar, home to both al-Jazeera and the U.S. military’s Central Command (Centcom) during the United States’ present war in Iraq; with bitter good luck she’s on hand when the bombing of Baghdad begins, and when the premature ”Mission Accomplished” banner is unfurled, too. And if ”Control Room” couldn’t possibly keep up with the most current of awful headlines, this new knowledge only heightens the movie’s useful unease.
Uneasier still is the preferential portrait Noujaim’s docu paints of the Arab news outlet. While she showcases a thoughtful, passionate al-Jazeera staff proud of their culture, including elegant senior producer Samir Khader and journalist Hassan Ibrahim (who was a classmate of bin Laden’s in Saudi Arabia and previously headed the BBC Arab News service), the American reporters she chooses are framed as a motley lot. Some come across as weary and exasperated with Centcom evasions (the exhaustion is represented by CNN correspondent Tom Mintier, a veteran of war coverage who began his career as a cameraman in Vietnam), while others appear shallow, or cynical, or inappropriate as they’re seen laughing, challenging, doubting, mocking. That such informal behavior is the outgrowth of the egalitarian rights of freedom of expression taken for granted by Americans (and easily misconstrued by non-Americans) doesn’t lessen the discomfort the scenes may provoke among defensive American viewers. And that, the bicultural Noujaim might argue, is her point.
Anyhow, in the midst of such button pushing, the participation of Lieut. Josh Rushing, a military press officer, is all the more welcome: While no one in ”Control Room” deserves to be called a hero, this thoughtful soldier (who helped secure access to Centcom for Noujaim when other channels failed) is the closest the filmmaker comes to providing an American role model. A gentle, open-faced young man, Rushing comes across as genuinely committed to the Western values and goals for which he postpones his life at home. Yet he’s man of the world enough to know that to its viewers, al-Jazeera’s Arab perspective is no less real and influential than the perspective of CNN – or Fox – is to Americans. And that we ignore this truth at our peril.