Control Room

(U.S.A.) 2004 original. Director - Jehane Noujaim. Filmed by Jehane Noujaim and Hani Salama. USA Producer - Rosel Varela. Middle East Producer - Hani Salama. Distributor -Magnolia Pictures. (84 minutes).

Reviewed by Ralph Berenger, TBS contributing editor

A great documentary filmmaker is like a great journalist: both have a nose for news, a sense of the dramatic, and the skill to tell a compelling story so truthfully that it affects even the most skeptical viewer. Jehane Noujaim is a great documentary filmmaker.

Control Room is all about finding the essence of a news story—in this case how the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera covered the 2003 Iraq War. In the end, however, the story turned into something more. This documentary is winning plaudits around the world, and will be released in theaters in the US as a feature film. A CD Rom, containing additional scenes and interviews, is also planned by the director and her distributor.

The Egyptian-born, Harvard-educated filmmaker set up camp in Doha, Qatar, in the spring of 2003 shortly before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Through interviews, news clips, and candid filming, Noujaim draws the viewer into the world of global journalism, often rough and tumble, often frenetic and dysfunctional, and sometimes heart-shattering. The most poignant moment in the film is the footage of Al Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayoub, who was killed shortly after being filmed on the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad April 8, 2003-the day Baghdad fell to US forces. His death seemed to draw the once-distant American journalists closer to their Arab brethren at Centcom.

Americans, especially, will be transformed by Noujaim's film because Al Jazeera has been vilified in the US by both the media and government as "the voice of Osama bin Laden" and "the propaganda arm" of some unidentified Arab force. Good old-fashioned Yankee xenophobia? What Americans will see are trained professional journalists carrying out their passionate pursuit of a story-like American journalists once were before high salaries, university degrees, and celebrity metamorphosed reporters into just another group of elites covering other elites for increasingly alienated audiences.

Granted, Al Jazeera journalists have a point of view (mostly pro-Arab/anti-US government policy in the Middle East on nearly every initiative) that would make most Americans fidget in their Lazy Boys and nervously thumb their remotes, but the honesty of this cinéma vérité is compelling, especially when those interviewed expressed admiration for many American virtues like free expression, patriotism, and religious fealty.

For example, at one point a weary Sameer Khader, the senior Al Jazeera producer, confided to Noujaim that if he were offered a job at an American network, "I'll take it and send my children to American universities to exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream."

After three short months inside Doha's war-fired crucible, the viewer senses that the once-aloof American journalists and the once-defiant Arab reporters found enough common ground to feel comfortable with one another. The viewer is left to ponder whether Control Room shows the Western and Oriental worlds in microcosm.

Noujaim, who won critical success in her first documentary, Startup.Com, about an Internet company, resists the ego trap that snares many documentary filmmakers: she stays out of camera range, and after a while the viewer forgets all about her. She lets her camera show the story; she doesn't tell us the story.

Critics, used to Hollywood-type documents, may find Control Room unnerving and jittery. At times the sound is not as clear as it could be, and the lighting has a film noir quality to it. But it feels real and these lapses in production values seem only to enhance the final product.

Interviewed on camera were faces that will be familiar to anyone who switched back and forth from the US channels to Al Jazeera. They include: Lt. Josh Rushing, Centcom's press officer; Hassan Ibrahim, Al Jazeera journalist; Deema Khatib, Al Jazeera producer; Tom Mintier, CNN correspondent; Abdallah Schliefer, TBS's editor-in-chief, who is also Middle East executive producer of Control Room; and David Shuster, NBC correspondent. TBS

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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