Control Room

By Ashish Ghadiali

It was clear that the spirit of independence was up against the wall when the institutions of power decreed 'you're either with us or against us'; the journalists behind the independent satellite network Al-Jazeera may have come to experience this more profoundly than anyone. Catapulted into the limelight after international interest in Middle Eastern affairs was heightened by the WTC attacks of 2001, the channel has dedicated itself to the transmission of images of the Middle East that fail to be broadcast in the Western media, and as a result has amassed an astounding 40 million viewers worldwide.

Controversial decisions ranging from the screening of Osama Bin Laden's post-attack messages to the images of dead Iraqi soldiers have led US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to brand the network's editorial staff as liars and inciters of anti-American sentiment. 'Not', in the words of the big man, 'helpful' and so clearly 'not with us' that the news service found itself cast, in the simplistic rhetoric of the 'battle for hearts and minds', as the enemy. During the 2001 war in Afghanistan the Al-Jazeera buildings were bombed, and in Iraq in 2003, after the company had taken special precautions to warn the US military command of its coordinates, they were targeted again – causing the death of Jordanian journalist Tarek Ayoub in the process.

His unnecessary death provides an emotional focus in Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim's 84-minute documentary Control Room, cut together after five weeks' filming in the Al-Jazeera newsroom in Qatar, but even without this tragic emphasis the film wouldn't fail to push our emotional buttons. Portraying the difficulties suffered by individuals caught in this war between two worlds, Noujaim repeatedly confronts us with complex human situations that are profoundly more penetrating than the vulgar rhetoric that frequently issues from the Pentagon.

We get to know Al-Jazeera's senior producer, Samir Khader, a journalist whose Middle Eastern heritage coupled with his exposure to the history of the West has led him without difficulty to find a position that to many Western ears sounds contradictory: hopeful for democracy in the Middle East, critical of the way the United States is going about achieving it. On the one hand he is able to say that the death of Tarek Ayoub was, to him, 'a crime that should be avenged', while on the other hand he acknowledges that 'if I was offered a job with Fox, I would take it – to turn the Arab nightmare into the American dream'.

The grotesque simplicity of the good vs. evil (with us or against us) rhetoric is really the theme of this film which, by constantly showing us the complex and critical engagement of Al-Jazeera's journalists with the new world order, quickly dispels the image of the news network as an Al-Qaida propaganda machine. Quite to the contrary it shows Al-Jazeera to be one of the very few serious information services in the world. In an interview printed on the film's website, director Noujaim asks, 'What is propaganda? Before the war Saddam's regime warned that if Al-Jazeera continued to broadcast American propaganda they'd be banned from broadcasting in Iraq. At the same time, the American government was accusing Al-Jazeera of reporting Iraqi propaganda'.

Stuck in the middle, Al-Jazeera comes under fire for showing the images that perhaps we do not want to see. But in doing so, in contrast to the sanitised coverage offered by US networks CNN and Fox, it is possibly coming closer to fulfilling the potential of television to serve humanity for the better. As the American manager of Al-Jazeera.net explains, 'Let the people understand that this is a war, and that people are dying'. And when US military press liaison officer, Lt. Rushing acknowledges how images of the dead and dying have taught him to 'hate war', we can be sure that the work of Al-Jazeera is developing into a major civilising force. It's symptomatic of the film that Noujaim also helps to shatter Middle Eastern stereotypes by showing us the intelligent humanity of an American soldier. While such subtleties might be seen as 'not helpful' to Rumsfeld and his crew, they might just be the most important thing for the rest us to take in before we find our governments kicking off again.
 
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