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Film Review - Control Room

Nirmala Garimella

Control Room: Documentary.
Directed by Jehane Noujaim. (84 minutes. Not rated.
In English and Arabic, with English subtitles.

Curiosity and a vague sense of admiration for the News Channel Al Jazeera, spurred me to go and watch the documentary ‘Control Room’ this weekend. Directed by Egyptian American, Harvard educated filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, ( Startup.com) it focuses on Al Jazeera's coverage of the beginning of the war in Iraq and also offers footage on the US and other international media.

Since the invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of the Iraq war, Al Jazeera has been a frequent source of controversy in the Western world. The popular Arabic satellite channel reaches an audience of 40 million in the Middle East, and its importance is constantly growing. A few Arab nations have also banned the channel for its fiercely independent criticism of some of its governments and leaders.

The film hits home some very hard truths. Does objectivity in news reporting also mean that we refuse to acknowledge about news that is clearly suppressed? Does showing images of human suffering in the war tantamount to propaganda? Is not all news biased because it offers a nationalistic perspective? And where does truth lie in war journalism?

Among the Al Jazeera staff we meet in the film are Samir Khader, a senior producer at Al Jazeera and Hassan Ibrahim, a passionate reporter, who formerly worked for the BBC. Both are charismatic people who offer their own stance on the nature of the news. As Samir Khader says “The goal of Al Jazeera, is to” educate the Arab masses in something called democracy....to shake up their rigid societies, to awaken them, to tell them: Wake up, wake up, there is a world around you, something is happening in the world, you are still sleeping, wake up."

The film tries hard to dispute the Bush administration’s standpoint that the network is biased and a propaganda machine. Different views of people abound in the film: The frank and thoughtful exchanges between the portly Hassan Ibrahim and somewhat naïve press officer Lt. Josh Rushing make up the heart and soul of "Control Room. Then we have the little skirmish during a Press briefing at the White House when the spokesperson flashes a deck of cards of the most wanted men in the Iraqi cabinet and then makes it unavailable to the media. Many of its scenes take place in and around CentCom, the temporary media center in Qatar where the world's media gathered during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

A particularly momentous scene shows how the US media manipulated the scene on TV when joyous Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein after the capture of Baghdad. TV pictures on the monitors at CentCom clearly see something American audiences were not shown: The square was not filled with cheering citizens, but was completely empty, except for the small band of young men who toppled the statue. This film made during the beginning of the invasion has its moments of irony, when Bush declares that Iraqi prisoners will be treated “humanely and honestly “Very often Rumsfield’s comments are put to test given the questionable statement about Iraq from the administration.

To me, it seemed that the film was fair and balanced although the pro Arab leanings were clearly visible. But it is this bias that infuses the film with passion and thought provoking arguments. A powerful documentary, it leaves the viewer to come out of the theatre and make up their own mind about media coverage and war.

I would definitely recommend this film. The film brings home the point that there are people in the world whose realities are just completely different than ours.

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