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May 1, 2003. President Bush stands on an aircraft carrier and declares to cheering sailors: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
In the tiny nation of Qatar, a translator for the Al-Jazeera satellite network relays Bush’s speech to millions of viewers in the Arab world. As he intones Bush’s words into a microphone, the translator’s grimaces show his true feelings about the war — and the man declaring victory.
This is just one of dozens of fascinating moments in “Control Room,” an unnerving documentary profiling this unique network that’s faithfully watched by many in the Arab world yet reviled by the U.S. government and condemned by some Arab regimes as well.
However one might feel about Al-Jazeera or about the war, one has to applaud director Jehane Noujaim for her deft, thoughtful handling of an incendiary subject.
Virtually everyone we meet in this film has a point of view, but most of them are at least willing to discuss it. If the purpose of a good documentary is to stretch our horizons, challenge accepted assumptions and get people thinking and talking, this film is not only good; it is important, too.
Noujaim, a Harvard-educated Egyptian-American, arrived in Qatar three weeks before the war broke out. First, she gained access to Al-Jazeera, then to the media center at the nearby U.S. military’s Central Command.
Her crew, using small cameras and no lights, settled in and watched as the war unfolded. Mixed in with the scenes of reporters and Army spokesmen is Al-Jazeera footage from Iraq.
This footage will be especially jarring to U.S. viewers, because U.S. networks have not shown such scenes: dead American soldiers, dead Iraqi civilians and American POWs trembling with fear as they are interviewed. Al-Jazeera’s journalists explain that they feel a duty to show the human cost of war — and show it they do.
We see what appear to be U.S. soldiers lying dead and bloodied in their uniforms. We see horrible glimpses of maimed Iraqi children.
We also see an Iraqi civilian, his white shirt drenched with blood, just after losing six family members in an attack. “Do I have to pay for this (American) democracy with six lives?” he asks. “My brother and his children are dead.”
And we see interviews with captured U.S. POWs in March 2003 — footage that drew condemnation from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. In it, one soldier’s voice quavers with fright as he stammers: “I come to fix broke stuff. I come to shoot only if I am shot at.” (The soldier, Pfc. Patrick Miller, was later rescued.)
U.S. officials have called Al-Jazeera “inexcusably biased,” and the “mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden” for airing tapes made by members of the al-Qaida network. And the network, launched in 1996 and now claiming full independence from Qatar’s government, is indeed critical of the Iraq war and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. (It has also gotten into trouble with some Arab regimes unhappy with its coverage of their policies.)
But the same U.S. officials might be surprised to hear one of the main characters in this film, for example, express deep respect for American values. The affable ex-BBC journalist Hassan Ibrahim expresses horror at the Bush administration’s actions in Iraq, but great admiration for the U.S. Constitution.
And Samir Khader, a senior producer at Al-Jazeera, surprises us when he speaks of his own future. “Between us,” he says, “if I’m offered a job tomorrow with Fox, I will take it.” And he hopes his children will study and then settle in the United States, getting a piece of the American dream.
There are also freewheeling exchanges between the Al-Jazeera journalists and a fresh-faced U.S. press spokesman, Lt. Joshua Rushing, who believes ardently in the U.S. mission and yet clearly is fascinated to hear — at length — about the other side.
That is heartening, because much other evidence points to hardened hearts and attitudes. Which brings us back to Al-Jazeera’s translator, who sadly predicts: “Soon there will be no more room for people like me who speak softly.”