The View from Doha

by David Theis

George Bush has certainly enlivened the summer movie season. Fahrenheit 9/11 is perhaps the first must-see documentary since Nanook of the North, and, now that Michael Moore has battered open the cineplex doors, a truly improbable number of films are rushing in behind him. There’s The Hunting of the President, which sets out to prove that there was in fact a “vast, right-wing conspiracy†to bring Bill Clinton down, and Jonathon Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate, with its own special take on the “How did this guy get to be vice-president?†story. John Sayles will chime in with his own fictional treatment of Bush. Then we’ll be treated to a feature-length documentary about John Kerry, which I hope wins him more votes than The Right Stuff did for John Glenn.

I also hope that Control Room, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary on Arab news channel Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq War, doesn’t get lost in the anti-Bush film festival. The film tells the part of the story that you expect to see. It documents the cowing of the U.S. media by the military and the administration. It also shows the scenes of destruction in Iraq that “our†media have spared us, from women wailing outside their exploded houses, calling down curses on Bush and his “democracy,†to mutilated bodies lying in the street. But Control Room does more than that. It offers a rich study in character, giving the film a deeper subtlety than I had expected.

Except for the footage from Baghdad itself, the film is set in the Al Jazeera studios in Doha and also 10 miles away, in the U.S. military’s Central Command (CentCom) headquarters, where journalists from around the world are regularly briefed. Noujaim, who recently released the well-regarded Startup.com, does not make her presence felt here in the Michael Moore style. Instead her camera discreetly roams through the various hallways, offices, and briefing rooms where her characters interact.

Her criticisms of the U.S. media are a bit muted. The film doesn’t track any of the “embedded†journalists joyriding across the Kuwaiti border, so Noujaim simply doesn’t capture any of their adrenaline-heavy, totally irrelevant reportage. Instead we see American reporters taking their daily briefings. Instead of being infused with the wowie-zowie enthusiasm of the “embeds,†these reporters seem burned out and beaten down. CNN’s Tom Mintier is more or less the weary face of American television journalism here. He doesn’t seem sold on the “news†the briefers put out, but he limits his critique of the military’s (successful) attempts to limit the news to a few mildly sardonic asides, apparently made for the benefit of Noujaim’s camera. In his actual CNN reports, Mintier simply parrots the line of the day.

The strongest criticism of the American media (and government) comes from Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese, BBC-trained reporter for Al Jazeera who has a series of rants concerning both topics. Ibrahim delivers the film’s best line when he admits both that the Americans have the world’s strongest army, and that we can militarily defeat any country on earth. “Just don’t ask us to love you,†he says.

It’s no surprise that Al Jazeera comes off better than CNN here. (The film doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a narrow accounting of Al Jazeera’s war coverage. It’s not an in-depth examination of the station.) They show footage that the Americans won’t, whether it’s of dismembered bodies or captured Americans. In the process they earn the wrath of Donald Rumsfeld, who is shown here making his familiar pronouncements that Al Jazeera is an unscrupulous, anti-America propaganda machine. “It’s disgraceful what is doing,†says Rummy. “They are simply lying.â€

But Rumsfeld’s already-familiar pronouncements feel particularly weak here because, at least as this film has it, Al Jazeera has simply come much closer to doing its job as a news organization than have CNN and all the rest. Or, to be more precise, Al Jazeera is guilty of telling the Arab side of the story, apparently without any more editorializing than the Americans commit.

The Al Jazeera people are shown rooting for the Iraqi army to do some damage. One producer, a young woman dressed in western clothes and speaking American-accented English, is dismayed by the sight of the American army cakewalking through the center of Baghdad. You don’t get the feeling that she’s a Saddam partisan, which makes her lament “Where is the Iraqi army? Where is the Republican Guard?†an even more telling sign of how humiliating the U.S. invasion was for all Arabs.

The same scene, which includes the now famous/infamous toppling of Saddam’s statue, gives the clearest insight into how managed the “news†from the front was. The Al Jazeera cameras are pulled back farther from the statue than were those of the American media, which allows us to see that the square was nearly empty—that Iraqis were not out celebrating the fall of the dictator en masse. And the Al Jazeera producers, watching and commenting from their studio, make a convincing case that the men who “spontaneously†appeared on the square to pull down the statute were in fact American plants. “I grew up in Iraq,†says the always mournful looking senior producer Samir Khader. “Trust me, those are not Iraqi accents.†The same Western-dressed woman asks how the men happened to be carrying an Iraqi flag from an earlier era. “They just happened to be standing around with the flag in their pocket?â€

This is all vitally important information. Some of it is darkly funny, or at least appallingly ironic, as when Bush angrily responds to Al Jazeera’s televised interview with American prisoners by saying, gulp, “I expect POWs to be treated humanely, just as we are treating the prisoners we have captured humanely.â€

What’s not funny is the American response to Al Jazeera. Noujaim shows us the aftermath of our military’s killing of journalists from Al Jazeera and Dubai, and of its attack on a hotel which was widely known to house journalists—all three attacks came on the same day—in heart-breaking detail. When journalists from around the world gather in a memorial service, many are weeping. But not Khader. “That would be too easy,†he says.

Sardonic but controlled, Khader says, “This was punishment.†But in as clear a depiction of individual impotence when confronted with hyper-power as you could ever want, Khader follows this statement with a kind of “what-can-we-do†shrug. This is not the hostile anti-Americanism that Rumsfeld decries. It’s something much more painful.

Khader is a very compelling character in his sad-eyed worldliness. He sees the world as it is, which means he would jump at a chance to work for FOX (and he does indeed know what FOX represents) so that he and his family could live “the American Dream†instead of “the Arab nightmare.†But Marine Lieutenant Josh Rushing, CentCom press liaison, is the most compelling character here. Movie-star handsome (an Al Jazeera reporter even says he’s glad he (the reporter) isn’t a woman, so that he won’t fall in love with Rushing), scrupulously honest, and just an all-around good guy, Rushing is the walking, talking ideal of the American soldier, the kind we mythologized after WWII. He still exists!

Rushing’s on-screen evolution tells much of the story. At first, as we watch him debate with one foreign journalist after another, we see that he actually believes the company line, that we’ve come with a bagful of democracy dust which we want to sprinkle over the unruly inhabitants of Iraq. He insists, in effect, that everyone in the military, from the planners on down, is as good and pure-hearted as he is. And at least on the personal level, he has some success. We see journalists leave his office feeling a level of respect.

But as the war evolves, and deaths mount on both sides (far more on the Iraqi side, of course), Rushing reaches a remarkable degree of compassion. He talks about the way he felt when he saw dead American soldiers on Al Jazeera: “It was powerful, because Americans won’t show those kinds of images. It made me sick to my stomach.†But just when you expect him to parrot Rumsfeld and slag the station, he talks about another night, when Al Jazeera had shown similarly gory images of Iraqis killed during a bombing. Rushing describes them as “equally if not more horrifying,†but admits they had not disturbed him as much as those of the dead Americans. But then he realizes that, for the Arabs, it was those images of the Iraqi dead that were most horrifying, and it “upset me on a profound level†to realize that he valued American life more than Iraqi life. “It just makes me hate war.â€

Think the Marines are proud of their guy? Recently promoted to captain, Rushing has been reassigned and, according to Salon.com, forbidden to talk about Control Room. He says he plans to resign from the service, rather than be muzzled. If only some of his counterparts in the American media had equal balls.

David Theis is the author of Rio Ganges, a novel set in Mexico. He lives in Houston.

David Theis is a long-time Houston writer and a longer-time devotee of Mexican food.

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