Rear Guarded Action

                                             Al-Jazeera and the American Media

With all the hoopla surrounding Michael Moore's new film "Fahrenheit 9/11" I  went to see Jehane Noujim's "The Control Room" first. The documentary provides us with a different perspective on the Iraqi War - from inside Al-Jazeera's headquarters, located in Qatar. It is a democratically oriented documentary, Noujim does her level best to reflect various points of view (and rationalizations) including the POV of the American military and media. The contradictions between what is or isn't managed news are brought up front. You can't duck your head in the sand. Or mouth off the pieties about us being right and you being wrong. You essentially have to wade through the contradictions on your own if you have a half of a mind to do so. 

Sometimes it feels like every one has got their hands on the throttle. And its just a matter of time before one "fact"  stated from one point of view contradicts another point of view. "The Control Room" plays off these contradictions in a fascinating, brutally honest way that make you think.  Thinking about what is presented to you with a clear head and a skeptical attitude helps. But it doesn't solve the problem of interpretation of the news; of adhering to strict journalistic guidelines and practices about telling the news in "a fair and balanced" way. What is the news is really a matter of who has control of it. Only victims of war tell no lies.

American documentary film maker Jehane Noujim is a Harvard graduate. Her counterparts at Al-Jazeera, senior producer Sameer Khader, correspondent Hassim Irbrahim, and producer Deema Khatib, a young woman who sits glued to the control board, were all educated at western universities. Everyone talks English and talks it well. And that has a lot to do with how we receive their point of view: which, for the most part, is carefully and sharply articulated by Sameer Khader, passionately and bitterly expressed by Hassim Irbrahim, and sadly apprehended off the TV monitors by a mostly silent Deema Khatib.  

The film begins with the invasion of Iraq "Operation Iraqi Freedom." The shock smitten bombing of Baghdad with all of its innocent victims, the flooded hospitals, the Red Cross reporting on a humanitarian crisis, the killed American soldiers and downed helicopters, the removal of an American flag over the head of Sadaam's statue, and the tearing down of the statue by cheering Iraqis. An Al-Jazeera camera focuses on a group of Iraqis marching up to the statue on a side street to tear it down. They are purportedly paid off by the Americans to do just that. When the statue is torn down the camera pulls far enough back to a partially emptied square. Where are all those hundreds of Iraqi's we saw on our screens back home? Is this an American hoax or an Al-Jazeera one? You have to look closely to know which way the wind blows.  What works best is what works best when its working. 

An American Apache helicopter dumps a bomb deliberately on Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Baghdad killing a correspondent. A deep sorrow fills the control room; tears, anger, everyone knows and loves the murdered man. We are shocked at this brutal attempt to silence the news. How could you not sympathize with the production crew? It is  wrong headed to squash dissent and the bombing alienates some American correspondents as well. 

Apparently no one media agency has a beeline on the truth. They are all in it together whether they like or not. The documentary is held together by the conversation between senior producer, Sameer Khadar, and military Press Officer John Rushing. They debate and argue civilly with mutual respect.  Khadar is the logical one; Rushing, on the other hand, is defensive. He does his job. He represents well the U.S. military in every way possible, yet clearly feels uneasy and conscience stricken about the point of view expressed by Khadar. You can't help but like Rushing for that reason, and you know that these men would be good friends if it wasn't for the fucking war. 

The only true POV is that of the victim. If you're dead, you can't speak. If someone you love, man, woman, or child has been murdered (and war is murder however you justify it); or if you are an American soldier blown up on the side of a highway, or laid out neatly in rows of coffins covered by American flags; or if you are weeping in front of a body, holding up a bloody limb, screaming at the camera, or bowing your head while attending a funeral with flying colors and taps being played with grave and haunting solemnity; or if you are just anywhere watching all the shit being poured down the drain, you know despair when you see it. You can change channels or shut off the damn thing. If the scene is excessively bloody, you are not usually going to get it on an American TV screen without a warning to the effect that what you are about to see is not for every one. In which case you can turn away and wait till an upbeat ad comes, change channels, or shut off the damn thing. 

Rarely has the distance between cultures been better spelled out in a media operation than the experience of being in the control room at Al Jazeera when the action in Iraq takes place. One act of brutality reinforces the other on all sides. News has a magical attraction for many people. More violence to shake your head at. Isn't it interesting how the camera creates distance, while at the same time making violence and lies intimate? That is what is called drowning in  shit. If Mel Gibson can do violence in "The Passion of the Christ", why can't Al-Jazeera do violence on the Passion of the Anti-Christ? One point of view mirrors and deserves the other.  

In short, the managed news in America is what sells. The managed news in Al-Jazeera is what we need to hear whether we like it or not. 

©2004 Ned Bobkoff

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Ned Bobkoff has worked with performers from all walks of life,
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