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Seeing What Al-Jazeera Really Does

I was having dinner last night with a friend of mine who was visiting from out of town when she asked me about the last great movie I had seen. The truth was I hadn’t seen anything good in recent memory, so after thinking about it for a minute or so I weakly offered up 50 First Dates. It was a sweet movie with a satisfying ending, but for me “great” requires something more than that. A great movie should change the way you think about something. It should also evoke emotions that are more difficult to trigger than the warm fuzzies – anger, confusion, or frustration. It should be memorable and, in some small way, life-altering.

It had been a long time since I encountered such a film. Whether this was due to bad choices or bad luck, I can’t say. If movies were meals, then I had been subsisting on a diet of Kraft dinner lately – familiar, safe, but not very nourishing. That changed today when I saw Control Room at the Bytowne Cinema, a run-down independent theatre in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill neighbourhood. A good friend of mine had been recommending the movie to me for a few days and I finally capitulated. I knew the movie would be at worst tolerable when we arrived because we had to struggle to find seats. It was, at you’ve probably guessed, much better than that.

Control Room is primarily about Al-Jazeera and the war in Iraq. As the American forces move slowly through Iraq towards Baghdad, we are told a story about how the story of Iraq was told. At the US Central Command, located only 100 miles from Al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar, the war unfolds on a television screen. We are privy to the personal thoughts of the Al-Jazeera crew, a compelling and completely believable bunch, as well as the internal turmoil of one American media officer and the blind ignorance of his colleagues. We see the war from a perspective that, in the West, was not available. The American journalists are predictably out of touch upon arrival but surprisingly unsettled by the American government’s treatment of the war and the truth.

A seminal moment in the movie comes when “local Iraqis” pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein, a visual that most of us saw and which seemed—at least to the more skeptical among us—a made-for-TV event. Control Room leaves no doubt. As one of the Al-Jazeera reporters observes, the twenty-odd people who try to pull down the statue aren’t even Iraqis – he notes that “I can tell an Iraqi accent when I hear one – I was born here, I was raised here, I live here – and those aren’t Iraqis.” They are also carrying the old Iraqi flag, one that was changed after the first Gulf War. Why, a female reporter questions, did he have this flag in his pocket? Was it sitting there for thirteen years just waiting for this moment?

There are other “Gotcha” moments that make the Americans look less than heroic, less than the humble liberators they claimed to be, like when an American general shows journalists the infamous most-wanted deck of cards and promises to share them but then locks himself into his office and claims that “they didn’t make enough”. After one particularly gruesome picture of a young Iraqi boy with his intestines leaking out is shown, one of the journalists mutters “democracy” and shakes his head. His message is pretty clear.

Al-Jazeera, for those who have been living under a cone of silence for the past few years, is an Arab satellite news station with over 40 million viewers in the Middle East. It is the most powerful media presence in the Arab world, and as such has come under intense scrutiny from the Bush administration in the United States and the Sharon government in Israel. The CRTC recently approved Al-Jazeera’s application to broadcast in Canada, and it can now be seen on satellite television here.

Al-Jazeera has been criticized by the aforementioned governments for a range of positions its management supposedly holds. It is, according to people like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowicz, pro-Saddam, pro-Osama, pro-Arafat, and vigorously anti-Semitic. During the war – a scene that is depicted in the movie – an Al-Jazeera journalist was killed by American forces, who later on also fired on the Baghdad headquarters of Abu-Dhabi TV. We see in vivid detail an American plane circling, then launching a barrage of missiles at the hotel in which Al-Jazeera’s crew was stationed in Iraq. The military claimed that they came under “heavy fire” but we see or hear no such thing and there isn’t an American soldier in sight on the ground. It is a startling moment and one that seriously undermines the American government’s criticisms of the station.

Al-Jazeera has countered these accusations by asserting that they simply cover the news from a non-western, non-American perspective. They provide the news for the Arab world and as such have a responsibility to present a perspective that reflects the opinions, beliefs, and interests of their audience. At one point in the movie a female American journalist asks the female manager of www.Al-Jazeera.net if her station is objective. She answers the question with another question, and one that I’m sure most of us have wondered about: what is objectivity in journalism? She asks if the American coverage, particularly Fox News, is any more objective than Al-Jazeera, and the movie leaves little doubt that the answer is no.

To say that Al-Jazeera is unyieldingly anti-West and anti-Jewish is inaccurate. At one point in the movie, when the American forces are pummeling Baghdad, the manager of Al-Jazeera observes that he still believes in the American dream and will still send his children to be educated and live in the United States. Another character, in conversation with a more radical journalist, observes that the only force capable of stopping the American government is the American people. These, and other deeply thoughtful insights they make throughout the movie, are not the words of a hopelessly-biased group of ideologues.

It is true that Al-Jazeera has been critical of the Bush Administration and the Israeli government’s behaviour in recent years, but so have others. Their argument, which I agree with, is that there is nobody and no government in the world that is beyond reproach and above criticism—global superpowers included. As one of the characters in the movie observes at one point, the Arab world recognizes that America is the most powerful country in the world with a military that could crush any other with ease. But is the Arab world obligated to like this situation? I don’t think so, and neither does Al-Jazeera.

The best comparison for Control Room is Michael Moore’s wildly successful documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore’s polemic against the Bush administration raked in over $35 million, more than any documentary in history. It seems very unlikely that Control Room will earn even one-tenth that amount, and that’s a shame. Where Moore’s film is overbearing, obnoxious, and occasionally deceitful, Control Room is dignified and, in a strange way, beautiful. Where Moore’s film tells, Control Room shows. It is like someone telling a good joke – Moore’s film is the guy who asks if you “get it” and then explains why it’s funny. Control Room does not try to hit the audience with a rhetorical sledgehammer. This is best captured by a statement made at the end of the movie by Al-Jazeera’s director who, with his ever-present cigarette in hand, calmly observes that “history is written by the victors. So too will it be in Iraq.”

I left the Bytowne Cinema enraged. I joked with my friend that Al-Qaeda could do great business if they stationed a recruiter outside movie theatres that played Control Room. But the movie is not an anti-American polemic as much as it is a plea for the truth about Iraq to be heard. The American government is now reaping what it has sown in Iraq, just as the characters in Control Room predicted when the movie was filmed over a year ago. Iraq will not go quietly, and it will not democratize at gunpoint. The only hope now is that, with a full and complete U.S. withdrawal, the people of Iraq can return to their lives and move forward.

That the Bush administration has started to make noises about Iran being a “rogue state” and that the Iranian people “need democracy” is, in the context of this film, terribly worrisome. I sincerely hope that, as one Al-Jazeera journalist in Control Room argued, the American people will stop the American empire. Meanwhile, people need to go see this movie. I don’t care what your opinion is on the Middle East, on Israel, on Iraq, or on Al-Jazeera. See it. It’s a great film and one that, in a perfect world, would sell ten times as many tickets as the garbage that Hollywood routinely churns out. Unfortunately, as the movie so eloquently displays, we’re not living in one.

August 29, 2004–1508 w.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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