Filmmaking | Interviews

Out of Control

1 Jul , 2004  

Written by Sara Faith Alterman | Posted by:

Is there truth in journalism? If so, who's telling it? Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim's new documentary 'Control Room' unearths a fresh perspective on Middle Eastern news media and the war that still rages out of American earshot.

Most Americans are at the mercy of television. We rely on media to entertain, to educate, and to inform. The latter is especially relevant in times of military conflict, when the country is dependent on news coverage to keep us up to date on victories and defeats, on casualties and triumphs, and, sadly, the vicious slayings of POWs and the abhorrent corruption within our own military. We take journalism for truth, as it is our primary means of involvement in a war that has spawned controversy across the globe and within our own national boundaries.

Collectively, we as Americans hold our foundational right to express ourselves through speech and media in the highest regard. Yet representatives of the United States Administration have been candid in their criticism of what they call "inflammatory and exploitative" international journalism; namely, the unapologetically raw broadcasting approach of the controversial Middle Eastern news channel Al-Jazeera. Founded in the mid 1990s, Al-Jazeera prides itself on giving viewers a comprehensive look at the news that is happening around them. The channel has been especially disparaged for the photographs and video clips that accompany its reports, which can include horrific images such as the corpses of soldiers, or bloodied civilians victimized by the ramifications of military activity.

Just as American news media claims to report with integrity and accuracy, so does Al-Jazeera. Yet the resulting broadcasts are vastly different. How can the same events be reported so differently? Which country’s viewers are getting the truth? Does absolute truth exist in journalism, in any part of the world?

Documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim seeks her own truth with an introspective investigation of Al-Jazeera through "Control Room," a fascinating look at national perspective and the role of journalism in times of war.

SFA: How was Control Room originally conceived? You had cameras at Al-Jazeera on the day that American military action began, and there was really only 48 hours notice given by the Bush administration that there would be this attack. Was it a coincidence that you were there?

Noujaim: We knew that there was probably a war about to happen, and the idea had been brewing for a while to do something about perception, something that’s viewed wildly differently in the United States and in the Middle East. Qatar seemed to be an interesting place to be during the war; because you had Al-Jazeera broadcasting to a huge population in the Arab world, and about 15 miles away, Central Command housed the biggest American military base in the Middle East, as well as all of the journalists that were broadcasting to the rest of the world. It’s not easy to get access to so much. I wanted to make a film that’s about an issue as broad as something like perceptions about the war, and I needed to find characters to take an audience through the story. So where are you going to look for characters that have very different perceptions of what’s going on? In Qatar, there were all of these journalists there, of very different backgrounds, different nationalities, all there to cover the same event.


Control Room director Jehane Noujaim, photo courtesy Robin Holland. © Magnolia Pictures
[Click to enlarge]

Al-Jazeera itself has been, it seemed like, a natural central figure to the film because it has been so differently perceived. I grew up in Egypt with state-run television, where you watched the news but you never really knew exactly what was going on because it was so tightly controlled by the government. Al-Jazeera started in 1996; I was in the States at the time. And then when I went back in 1997 to see my family, and Al-Jazeera was playing all over the screens of coffee shops across Cairo, and you’d see people watching this debate program called "The Opinion and the Other Opinion," and they would get people from different sides of the argument to do a Western style talk show.

This was so new to people in the Arab world; it felt like the first step towards democratizing and opening up issues, because they were talking about subjects that had been previously considered taboo, like the role of women in society and the role of religion and the government, should you have a secular government or a non-secular government. People were finding this new and exciting, and it was encouraging people to talk about issues that hadn’t been talked about before.

Al-Jazeera was also exposing a lot of government corruption and criticizing local Arab leaders, so that wasn’t making the local governments very happy. They were kicked out of Sudan, Bahrain, Egypt at one point, Saudi Arabia, Iran. So they weren’t very popular within the Arab leadership. And then soon after September 11, they began to be labeled here [in the United States] as ‘the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden’ and ‘Taliban television.’ They were viewed as very anti-American. So I was curious to find out who the people are behind the station.

SFA: You mentioned ‘perception’ which reminded me of a comment made in the film by Lt. Josh Rushing [a Central Command press officer] about news media. He said that media has to play to its respective national audience in order to ensure viewership. Do you think that news media can exist without national bias?

Noujaim: I think that every reporter is going to have a particular perspective. None of them are going to be neutral. Maybe if you got together a group of journalists from all over the world, a truly international group of journalists, who are able to work together and try and compile reports and get their facts from sources all over the place. Then you get closer to neutrality. But anyone that ever makes a report is always going to have a point of view.

It’s made it even more difficult with the corporations, with the fact that news organizations here in the States are now being controlled by only a few companies. Journalists have so many people to answer to. It feels like it’s very difficult for news organizations; they’re relying on advertising, and their advertisers want to make sure they’re not offending anybody. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. Al-Jazeera is at a stage where it feels like they’re able to be freer in what they want to broadcast sometimes, just because they don’t have any advertisers to answer to. They’ve been trying to get advertising, but companies refuse to advertise with them. Companies in the Arab world have to maintain very good relationships with their governments, and since Arab governments don’t like Al-Jazeera, no one wants to advertise with them. So I think that that’s actually given them some kind of freedom.

SFA: Al-Jazeera’s website describes the news channel as a refreshing new perspective that provides people with the news that they don’t see. However, they’re been criticized a lot for being too inflammatory, too explicit, showing exploitative and controversial images. In the film Samir Khader [senior producer at Al-Jazeera] made a comment about how Al-Jazeera embodies true journalism.

Noujaim: Samir says at the beginning of the film that Al-Jazeera’s purpose is to wake up all of these rigid societies. He said it another time, ‘We are what they want’, meaning that Al-Jazeera is what the West wants for Arab regions; to open up channels of speech, to get people to talk about problems in the government. Samir is somebody that’s been educated in France, he’s been educated in the West, he’s considered to be pro-Western. He has fought for a long time to have absolutely no taboos on Al-Jazeera: he’s been responsible for bringing in every Israeli official that’s spoken on the channel.

During the war, Samir kept hearing these statements by U.S. officials, such as when Donald Rumsfeld said something to the effect of ‘Al-Jazeera is putting out lies, and when they lie to people in the region it’s very difficult.’ This was frustrating to Samir on a couple of different levels, because he honestly feels that Al-Jazeera is a channel that makes an effort that should be shown.

Sure, Al-Jazeera isn’t saying everything that the U.S. government wants to be shown or wants to say, but in principle, what they’re doing is setting the field for people to create a democracy from the ground, rather than it being imposed from the outside. I think a lot of Arabs have a problem with just that, how the U.S. is coming to Iraq and imposing a democracy rather than letting democracy grow from the ground up, from the people.

Samir is frustrated that U.S. officials are criticizing Al-Jazeera. He knows that the people of Iraq are seeing destruction around them, the bombs dropping, they’re seeing people go to the hospitals. They’re actually seeing what Al-Jazeera is showing. An Arab population who is watching Al-Jazeera every day and then sees U.S. officials saying that [their broadcasts are based on lies]; it makes Rumsfeld and the U.S. administration look like they just want the news to be the kind of news that they want out there. And what kind of freedom of speech is that? So this basically ruins any effort that he [Samir] is making to try and appeal to the cynics at Al-Jazeera and in the Arab world that don’t feel like they should be taking on U.S. values of freedom and democracy. It’s proving these cynics right.

Do I agree that Al-Jazeera embodies the only true journalism in the world? No. I think we have some amazing independent media stations here [in the United States], I think we have a lot of journalists with a lot of integrity, there are a lot of unilateral journalists on the ground in Iraq that were reporting some amazing stories.

I think that the system in the U.S. is a very difficult system to work in. I felt that even with Tom [Mintier, a CNN correspondent featured in "Control Room"]. In the film, he’s watching the Jessica Lynch story happening, and saying ‘They’re burying the lead, there’s something going on. Why are they showing us this video [of Lynch] on the day that troops are moving into Baghdad?’ And he can’t stand up there and state his disbelief of the story, because his bosses at CNN are calling and saying look, all of the other stations are reporting on Jessica Lynch. America wants to know about Jessica Lynch, so stand up there and talk about Jessica Lynch. So he had to, even though his gut feeling on the whole thing was something completely different. So if we were in this atmosphere of media where we were able to take more risks, maybe make more mistakes and ask the wrong questions as a means to get to the right questions. I think that’s what’s missing; the risk taking in journalism.

SFA: What do you think the relationship should be between the media and the military in times of military conflict? One on the scenes in "Control Room" that really struck me was when you shot a press conference about the ubiquitous playing cards that featured pictures and profiles of people, such as Saddam Hussein and his sons, who were perceived, by the United States, to be the most threatening to the ‘Iraqi liberation.’ In the scene, the American military promised to make these cards available to journalists but then, immediately after the press conference concluded, refused to do so. What do you think about that? Does the public, be it the American public, or the public as an international entity, always have a right to know exactly what’s going on? Do you think the media is too deeply involved in military conflict, or do you think they should be more so?

Noujaim: It was interesting, because I kept hearing the military say that they couldn’t talk about certain things, because it would give away sensitive information. That was the biggest reason that the military gave for not giving out information to the press; they didn’t want to endanger American troops. I think that the press should be trying to get that information, sure. But I think that journalists get too consumed by the ‘what happened, where did it happen, how did it happen’. But not the ‘why.’ Viewers didn’t see analysis, didn’t see, early on, why we [Americans] were there in Iraq to begin with. We didn’t know if the issues of weapons of mass destruction were really there.

So with the deck of cards, it was kind of a tragic and funny scene. Again, the bosses of the networks back in the U.S. knew that there was this deck of cards coming out, knew that if one network had the cards that everyone would turn into that network rather than the other channels. I felt like it was that competition that was driving journalists to get a hold of this deck of cards. Journalists had a funny game that they had to play; they had to make sure that they asked as many easy questions as they did difficult ones. There was somebody from New York Magazine, I believe his name was Michael Wolfe, who came into the press center, and on his third day he asked, "What the hell are we doing at this multi-million dollar press center? We’re not learning anything!" And he was approached by some military personnel afterwards who told him that "This is war, buddy, and you’re not getting any more questions!"

If you didn’t maintain your relationship with the press officers, you didn’t get your questions answered anymore. So I would watch Tom from CNN play this game constantly. He would ask a very difficult question one day, and then he would ask a very easy question the next, to ensure that he would keep getting questions. It’s got to be a friendly relationship or you’re not going to get any information.

On the other hand, I think we need to really look at why there isn’t more difficult questioning. I believe that the job of journalists is to be questioning the centers of power. So Al-Jazeera journalists need to be questioning Arab centers of power and the U.S. administration, just as American journalists should be questioning Saddam Hussein’s regime and their own administration. But during times of war, the country becomes very patriotic; you’re supposed to support your troops. It seems like something needs to be done to make journalists be more comfortable, feel less threatened about losing their jobs, so that they can feel free enough to go out and take risks, ask difficult questions.

SFA: How was this filmmaking experience affected by your gender? You were a woman working in the Middle East; what was that like?

Noujaim: The two characters that I dealt with at Al-Jazeera were very open-minded people. When you’re dealing with people that don’t make the [professional] differentiation between being a woman and being a man, obviously it doesn’t make a difference. There were sexist people that, I’m sure, questioned my abilities as a filmmaker. But that may have actually helped, because they took me a little less seriously. They gave me a little more access because they didn’t think that my film would go anywhere.

But we had an ideal situation. I shot the film with Hani Salama, who is a Bosnian Egyptian filmmaker and a guy. Al-Jazeera has a mosque on its premises, and we wanted to film people praying. Hani is Muslim, and a male, so it was much easier for him to go and do that. I could never have done that. But, I could go into the make-up room where all of the young female correspondents were. So it definitely helped to have a mixed gender team when working in the Arab world. But I didn’t feel like being a woman limited me in any way.

Information about ‘Control Room,’ the filmmakers and upcoming screenings may be found at www.controlroommovie.com


Information about 'Control Room,' the filmmakers and upcoming screenings may be found at www.controlroommovie.com