Programming: Danny Schechter Interviews Jehane Noujaim about her
Documentary on Al Jazeera
war in Iraq propelled an American satellite channel, known colloquially
as the Chicken News Network and by its initials, CNN, into a
global news power. In the second Iraq war, another broadcaster,
Al-Jazeera, became famous - or infamous, depending on your point
know Al-Jazeera for its broadcasting of videos taken of Osama
bin Laden. During the war, its reporting attracted the animus
of American officials who alternately sought airtime to push
their views and then vented if the station ran images and information
challenging their message. Most U.S. news outlets seemed to
mix jingoism and journalism by cheerleading for "the War
for Iraqi freedom." Al-Jazeera offered a counternarrative
focusing on the pain and suffering of its victims.
collaborative effort among Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane
Noujaim (Startup.com), Al-Jazeera producers, and a U.S. scholar
teaching in Cairo has resulted in a documentary, Control Room,
premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. While the American
media embedded themselves with the American military, Noujaim
embedded herself with Al-Jazeera, and the story she and her
collaborators tell is fascinating.
Room is a gripping inside look at how Al-Jazeera thinks and
works. It gives you a feel for these journalists' humanity,
politics and sense of irony. It also shows how seriously they
take their ethical responsibility for balance, even as many
of the U.S. outlets that preach that value rarely practice it.
How did you decide to make Control Room?
Noujaim: I have traveled back and forth between the U.S. and
the Middle East my whole life, and I've always been interested
in the fact that there are completely different stories [in
the two regions concerning] the same world events. How is it
possible to have a peaceful world, people talking to each other
and understanding each other, when there are completely different
views being told to the people?
What exactly is Al-Jazeera?
Al-Jazeera is the first free Arab news network. It claims most
of the viewership of the Arab world.
When you say "free," what you really mean
is that it's a commercial station. It's not a state-run broadcaster
like many of the others in the Arab world.
Right, it's not a state-controlled television channel.
It's a commercial television channel. And it was started when
the BBC Arab World Service was shut down. A bunch of those journalists
moved to Qatar, and that's when Al-Jazeera started.
So it was set up as this outlet by former BBC trainees and BBC
journalists to try to create an Arabic-language service for
the Arab world. Am I right?
You are right! You should answer these questions.
You can't assume too much knowledge.
That's true. Many people watched a cut of the film and said,
"Oh, I thought that Al-Jazeera had something to do with
the Iraqi television and that it was run by members of the Iraqi
government." I was flabbergasted. Al-Jazeera was heavily
criticized by the Iraqi government and was kicked out of Iraq
on a couple of occasions because the Iraqi government didn't
feel like their press was favorable.
When people say that kind of thing - about Al-Jazeera, for example
- does it also say something about American ignorance of the
Camera Manufacturer and Model
Sony PD-150 PAL and Sony VX-2000.
Final Cut Pro.
Noujaim: I'm trying to figure that out myself:
why do I feel like I'm in a bubble in the United States? And
it has to do with the fact that when you are turning on the
television, I think that you are seeing a very small selection
of information. Abdullah Schleiffer, one of the characters in
our documentary, would say, "Well, because the U.S. is
the most powerful country in the world, there is no need to
really look far outside of the United States." Hassan,
another character, a Sudanese journalist, says that there's
this feeling that you're surrounded by a big [Ocean], so you're
not touched by the countries around you.
Did you have access within Al-Jazeera before you started
the film? How did you begin the project?
I went to Qatar because all the news outlets in the U.S., Europe,
Australia and Asia had offices in this small country. I thought
that it was going to be a place where you could see the creation
of news, and it was actually a news "factory" during
the war. I decided to go a few weeks before the war started,
and at that time I had no access to Al-Jazeera. I went there
and basically knocked on doors. Abdullah Schleiffer is our executive
producer, and he covers Arab news stations, and so he had a
long relationship with the folks at Al-Jazeera. Through him,
I spoke to the head of Al-Jazeera. And at central command, I
was able to follow one of the NBC guys, a guy named David Schuster,
mainly because, again, Abdullah had been news bureau chief of
Cairo for NBC for 10 years. And [Schleiffer] also made the introduction
to Lieutenant Rushing, who was quite an enlightened press officer
in terms of the fact that he was very open to trying to understand
the other point of view.
How did you choose the specific characters in your film?
What interested you in them?
I wanted to find people who were really trying to understand
the other side, who were complex characters. I didn't want to
take the cheap shot at Fox News - you know, it's very easy to
do that. I thought that picking intelligent characters would
be the best [approach]. You have to follow somebody you have
a belief in. You have to feel that there may be something they
might discover because their mind is open enough to discover
it. I don't think it's interesting to follow characters who
you know are never going to change.
As represented in your film, the Al-Jazeera journalists are
almost classical Western journalists in the Middle East. They
are representing - to me anyway - the values that American media
seems to have abandoned because of showbiz techniques and the
Yeah, I think that there's still this feeling among journalists
in the West, like the NBC reporter, for example, that they want
to be reporting international politics, looking deeper into
stories and making more in-depth stories rather than just taking
the sound bites. But I think a lot of them feel the pressure
to appeal to a public that wants everything simplified. And
I myself haven't figured that out: what comes first, the chicken
or the egg? Is it the public that really wants to simplify press,
or is it the press that is providing and conditioning people
to only want this simplified, sound-bite-y kind of news? As
one of the journalists says, television is for entertainment,
and now news has turned into entertainment. If you want to actually
understand anything, then you can't watch television news.
So let's talk about some of your specific characters. Here you
have an Iraqi. He is clearly anti-Saddam, he is a news producer
or major producer at Al-Jazeera, and in your film he confesses
in one moment to thinking of leaving the Middle East and coming
to work for Fox News. Bizarre, unexpected.
He is a surprise a minute, which is why I loved following him.
He represents to me the complexity of many people in the Middle
East and their relationship with the United States. I think
everybody in the Middle East would love to have the freedoms
and the liberties that people have in the United States, but
at the same time, there is a resentment, a feeling that there
is hypocrisy in American foreign policy.
And then you have this American military guy who in your film
justifies American policy but then, after talking with some
Al-Jazeera journalists, pauses for a minute and says, "Look,
when I get out of the military, I want to work on the Palestinian
issue." That shocked me!
Six O'Clock News: Ross McElwee's 1996 film follows the lives
of several people whose personal tragedies were covered on the
local evening news.
The War Room: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker get full access
to the ingenious campaign behind Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential
election. The movie that introduced the world to political gurus
James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.
Caméra Arabe: Férid Boughedir's 60-minute film
from 1987 offers a look into the history of Arab cinema. Available
as an extra on Kino's Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces DVD.
Click on a title to purchase it from Amazon.com.
Noujaim: Yeah, Rushing was a very open character. He
was the [military] liaison to the Arab news channels there.
I think that he came there having read a lot about the Iraq
situation, and he felt very strongly that the United States
was doing the right thing. But I think that after having dinner
and long conversations with many of the Arab news reporters,
he was open enough to question some of his feelings, some of
his stereotypes about the region.
What do you hope the audience will come away with from watching
Well, I came away with the fact that, like your book [Embedded:
How the Media Failed to Cover the War] says, the more I watch,
the less I know! I came away with the fact that I felt like
I had to look a lot deeper into everything that I'm watching
and examine all the stereotypes that I do have. So I would hope
people would also come away from this film taking nothing for
granted that they see on television.
How does this film compare with Startup.com?
It's very different. For me, it was about going to a place for
30 days (because that's as long as I got the visa for) and getting
an impression of the war from a number of different viewpoints.
In Startup.com, I followed my roommate for a year and a half,
and it was much more of a story about two people going through
an emotional journey together. This film is much more a look
at events from a number of different perspectives and how those
perspectives, because they have such an influential role in
shaping opinion, affect the world.
hear what Donald Rumsfeld said today in his press conference?
Once more he said - he says it two times in our film - that
he has no problem with the American press and the Western press
but that the Arab press continues to lie, continues to give
false messages, continues to lie to its people. And in the film,
you saw that he accuses Al-Jazeera of placing women and children
in front of bombed-out sites.
Not that I saw. TBS