The feature-length documentary, Control Room is a gritty and realistic presentation of the media’s role in modern warfare. The film’s premise is to demonstrate the contrast between the perception of the Al Jazeera news network in comparison with its reality. Released in 2004, Control Room was filmed, on the ground, during the American 2003 invasion of Iraq in an attempt to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime and liberate the Iraqi people. The complaint regularly made by western broadcasters and indeed, the U.S. government and military, is that Al Jazeera is sympathetic to the causes of men like Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein but in reality, this is an extremely close-minded view of an organisation, based solely on the fact that it is an Arabic news station, or so it would seem.
This film reflects that fully and demonstrates that in practice, Al Jazeera produce objective and honest news reports that attempt to present both sides of the view whilst maintaining journalistic integrity. Control Room is a film which holds up a mirror to the western media and questions whether it is necessarily the best simply because it is the most mainstream, and compares it to Al Jazeera, a relatively young news station attempting to change the way in which news is reported. An interesting point raised in the film is the idea that the U.S. government may have taken it one step further than simply just ‘bad-mouthing’ Al Jazeera and actually killed three Arabic journalists. In the space of a day, a number of buildings were targeted which resulted in the three deaths of journalists from Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. Whilst nobody has officially come forward to comment on how deliberate these attacks were, it seems apparent that the coincidence is too great to be just that; it had to desired effect either way – the Iraqi people suddenly refused to talk to the journalists as they felt they were targeted. The film details this as it is demonstrates, in full, the extent to which the American government are afraid of these radical new news stations which do not simply just bow down to the might of the American government.
The film opens with an introduction to Samir Khader, the Senior Producer at Al Jazeera – a calm, stoic man who smiles honestly and immediately endears the viewer to him. However, his discussion is what sets the thesis for the entire film: in deliberating the role of media in modern warfare he states, “If he doesn’t put media and propaganda on top of his agenda then he’s a bad military.” This statement, along with the knowing smile that accompanies it, firmly established Khader as a man who is confident in his understanding of how the media works and the influence it holds over the outcome of the Iraq war. Following this, the film shows the now infamous clip of former President George W. Bush announcing the war in Iraq. This is cleverly placed alongside Khader’s opening statement as it demonstrates the latter to be correct in his assertions and the knowing smile to be belonging to a man who understands the politics of the situation. Bush states that the American intention is to remove Saddam Hussein and his sons from power and that the war is on him, not the Iraqi people. This also is designed to firmly establish the film’s thesis as what follows is a succession of discussions and images that reflect the fact that this statement is entirely false. This opening segment of the film is concluded by Khader explaning that Al Jazeera’s intention is to “educate the Arab masses on something called ‘democracy’ – respect for the other opinion.” He adds that it will be a forum for free debate and that he wants to “wake up” the Iraqi people. This is again reflected, later on in the film when an interviewer from CNN asks an Al Jazeera reporter whether she can be truly objective as an Iraqi journalist. Her response is eloquent and decisive; she states that her role as a journalist is to present the truth and suggests that “if there was a true neutrality, there’d be a welcoming of all information from any side” and she then asks whether as an American journalist, the CNN reporter can be objective. It is good point, well made. From this perspective, it is clear that Al Jazeera are determined to present their objectivity and honest retelling of events as being in the best interests of both the western and Arab worlds.
A caption appears on screen that states, “The Bush administration called it ‘the mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden’” and this acts a challenge. In reality, the Bush administration is guilty of manipulating the American public through this statement, even if no other evidence is examined. Following the horrific events of 9/11, the American public were understandably shocked by the actions taken by Osama Bin Laden and he became an international figure of hate and, arguably, justifiably so. However, the matter at hand in Iraq was bringing Saddam Hussein to justice so by mentioning Bin Laden, the American government is clearly attempting to manipulate a captive audience. The film has shown this to demonstrate the reason why the west perceives Al Jazeera in a certain light but also to demonstrate the subjective view that the Bush administration gave. It is designed to contrast with the open nature of the Al Jazeera reporters. Although the film is reporting on a sense of bias, it is possible that they are lending some bias towards Al Jazeera here, although a cynic might argue that the American government secured their own fates with the way that they handled the Iraq conflict.
Juxtaposed directly with Bush’s earlier statement that they were waging war against Saddam Hussein and not the Iraqi people is the succession of images that the film shows. These images caused a significant amount of controversy around the time of the Iraq war and that is discussed at length here. The American PR man is a Marine called Lt. Josh Rushing who is filmed suggesting that Al Jazeera are in support of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He claims that every time they cut to an advert break, they show a 30-60 second video of various aspects of the American military action – bombing, shooting etc. and then cuts to a shot of a small Iraqi child whose head is wrapped in bandages. He claims that Al Jazeera argue that they are objective but that they do not show the images of the Iraqi retaliation. His American colleague, whose title is a ‘media analyst’ retorts by saying “Nobody has those pictures.” This crucial point is one which stands strong against Rushing’s claims. The film then, once again, juxtaposes this discussion with footage of American soldiers entering a civilian household whilst shouting “Get on the fucking floor!” and then further images of American soldiers ‘policing’ Iraqi men by shouting “Face the fucking front” whilst violently pushing the Iraqi men around. Meanwhile, another American official claims that Al Jazeera are propagating propaganda by claiming that women and children are being bombed and injured when this isn’t true. Again, the film immediately highlights the falseness of this statement by showing the viewer upsetting images of young children who are in hospital, bandaged up, bleeding and generally looking war-torn. They compound this by then showing a devastated Iraqi woman who, whilst standing in front of her bombed home, shouts “Where is your humanity?” to the camera.
This film works on the basis of juxtaposition: the Americans claim one thing and the film demonstrates the opposite – usually to the benefit of Al Jazeera. In this sense, the film clearly shows how incompetent the Americans were in their tireless attempts to perpetuate the western hatred for the Arabic world. What is especially interesting about Control Room is that all of the voices heard are people who were on the front line – journalists, soldiers, Iraqi people – not one voice is that of the documentary maker, Jehane Noujaim or any of her assistants. In doing this, it gives the film an un-bias effect as Noujaim gives the people on film just enough rope to hang themselves and leaves them to it.
Undoubtedly, the film is cleverly edited but ultimately, it is carried out in such a way that allows the Americans to represent themselves poorly and the Al Jazeera journalists well. Presumably in an attempt to maintain a sense of unbiased journalism, the film presents the opinions of other journalists from around the world and in one scene, we hear an American journalist state that Al Jazeera are “the nicest guys.” In another scene, we are presented with the view of Nabeel Khaury of the U.S. State Department who states that “Al Jazeera has been critical but at the same time, they’ve been quite open to us – inviting U.S. government officials to speak directly on their channel and express the American point of view.” demonstrating how Al Jazeera are endeavouring to present an unbiased view of events. Equally as interesting is the scene where we see Jeffrey Steinzberg, an American activist voice a strong anti-war message which, most would presume would be favourably received by the Iraqi news station but instead, the reporter labels him as a “crazy activist” and states “it’s not our concern if he is for or against his country.” - an interesting insight that demonstrates Al Jazeera’s commitment to the cause of objective journalism and reporting the truth. The film’s thesis remains strong throughout its entire length with the focus largely being on how Al Jazeera attempted to report an unbiased account of the Iraq war but, as a bi-product, it also manages to exhibit the ineptness of the Americans.
On the whole, this is an informative and interesting film which presents a number of questions in regards to the Iraq war. The main one being the un-asked question of why the American forces were bombing civilians when they were supposedly only seeking out Saddam Hussein? Equally, it raises questions of how trustworthy the American government are when they seem so set on damaging the reputation of a news station that actively seems to be propagating the truth only. Whilst it is claimed by one that “Al Jazeera are ruffling a lot of feathers” it is also claimed that “the Americans will just radicalise more and more people.” It is these two views that demonstrate the core thoughts throughout the film – culminating in a startlingly young Iraqi boy who passionately shouts, “How can Saddam and his men let this happen? How can he let children starve whilst their mothers cry for them? The Americans are animals. They are scum.” Thus culminating two opposing views which Control Room seeks to discuss objectively but presented through the eyes of this young boy, both Saddam Hussein and the Americans are as bad as one another.
Noujaim, Jehane. (Director). (2004). Control Room [Motion picture]. United States of America: Noujaim Films.