The Control Room

We are a race of storytellers. For whatever reason, we have the need to organize our memories of events into narratives with heroes, villians and linnear plots that emphasize cause and effect. This urge is fundamentally human and probably hardwired into our DNA. It not only drives literature but also history, science, and especially journalism, where it’s called bias. Or at least someone with a different bias calls it that, even while believing that their stories are objective.

The Control Room strives to demonstrate this. Director Jehane Noujaim was granted extraordinary access to the offices and studios of Al Jazeera, the Arabic language news channel. Based in Qatar, Al Jazeera has come under severe criticism from the United States for showing footage of captured and dead US soldiers, dead Iraqi civilians and interviews that give negative critiques of the US. The film also makes the point that the channel has been banned by several Mid East regimes for critisizing tyranny in the region.

The film follows three major figures in this debate: Samir Khader, a senior producer for the channel, Hassan Ibrahim, a reporter assigned to the US central command. And Lt. John Rushing a press relations officer at Cent Comm.

At first, Khader appears to be a stereotype of a biased Arab newsman. He’s a chainsmoker with a bad combover and a shifty manner that doesn’t inspire trust. But he shows a kind of integrity in his coverage of the war.  In one scene, he lectures a subordinate who booked a radical American scholar for an interview. The scholor was blatently anti-American, making all kinds of claims that he didn’t back up. Khader wanted his staffmember to be more careful in picking people for interviews in the future.  When the filmakers interview him later, Khader confesses that he will send his kids to college in America and hope they can stay there.

Hassan Ibrahim is the most likeable and engaging figure in the film. We first meet him in a coffee shop discussing the impending American invasion. Someone asks him who will stop the Americans and he replies that Americans will and then goes on to make the incredible statement that he believes in the American constitution. Ibrahim comes across as intelligent and open-minded.

The most intriguing figure is Rushing, who at first glance seems to be a typical flack, slick, handsome, trying to spin everything that happens. But in the interviews with the filmmakers he reveals that he’s an intelligent young man whose exposure to new ideas is starting to make him think. When he describes his strong disgust at seeing footage of dead American soldiers and then his lesser reaction to similar footage of Iraqis, he wonders out loud what that says about him.

We follow these figures through the course of the war, seeing each one play a part in the events. And in a fascinating fashion the film echoes its own theme. It couldn’t help but to do so. The events of the war and the coverage of the war become a story; Khader and Ibrahim are the protagonists, while Rushing is a sympathetic antogonist. Naujaim’s bias is apparent even though the arguments on the both sides are given time. The filmaker’s argument is convincing, even though I imagine a good producer from Fox News could re-cut the film and make just as strong a case for the other side.

So it makes you wonder. The Control Room is done in a very cinema verite style. There’s no narration, only interviews and coverage of events. Yet it cannot be objective. When you make a documentary, you are imposing your viewpoint on reality, telling the story that’s important to you. When you  make an edit you’re saying that what you leave in is more important than what you leave out. Even when you frame a shot, you’re saying that what’s in the frame is more important than what’s outside.

In a way, The Control Room or any documentary is just as much a work of fiction as Star Wars. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t consider the filmaker’s argument because of that. But you should keep it in mind.

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