Or, this is no time for jokes
This week I took a one-two documentary punch to the nationalist solar plexus. On Wednesday night, I attended a BAFTA screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 at a theatre in midtown Manhattan. There, I was surrounded by like-minded Michael Moore fans already salivating at the thought of barbequed Bush before the lights went down, and we weren't disappointed. Moore raked the president over the coals and left me thinking it wasn't enough to vote him out of office in November--we have to go after him and his family after he's gone, pursue him right to the edge of hell or Saudi Arabia, into whichever of his masters' arms he flees for protection. I learned a few things I didn't know, spotted the things he left out, flinched when he went too far, and generally felt my personal outrage alert level go up a shade or two.
On Friday night, though, I saw the better film.
The title of Control Room refers to the project's two main settings--Central Command, or CentCom, the US operational headquarters and main media outlet, and the headquarters of Al-Jazeera, the network founded in 1996 which now broadcasts from the nation of Qatar to an Arabic audience of around 40 million. Denigrated by US authorities throughout the war for propagandizing on Saddam Hussein's behalf, urging resistance and insurgency, the Al-Jazeera of this film has a much more neutral face put on its journalistic objectives--if not those of its individual journalists. Following a small cast of journalists, station managers, and soldiers, the filmmakers are only to be found in the editing and the occasional expositional title card. The story of the war is told through a series of interviews, exchanges, and the often shocking, unsettling, and censored-in-the-US footage that got Al-Jazeera in trouble with the world's "civilized" nations.
If I left Fahrenheit 9/11 angry, I left Control Room depressed and disappointed in our government, our process, and the state of the world. The film takes sides--it feels like it tries not to, but it does--because it must, which seems to be part of the essential message. It's impossible not to take sides, and once you've seen even a fraction of what these people have seen, especially as an American both geographically and informationally isolated, there's no escaping the feeling that the current administration is up to some shady business. Ultimately, however, the film's real bad guy is not the Americans but the war itself, and Control Room allows you to see it from the perspective of the "other."
Less visibly manipulative than Farenheit, without its conspiratorial plotline, operatic villain, sense of humor, and the near impossibility of appealing to anyone not already in its camp, Control Room stands a better chance of gaining converts or at least educating the public as to the complicated and never entirely objective journalistic media component of war. Fox News and Donald Rumsfeld, of course, remain forever evil.
As Walter said--go see it.
- Hassan Ibrahim: Al-Jazeera journalist, formerly of the BBC (listen closely for an newsman inside joke regarding the organizations' relationship). Born in Sudan, raised in Saudi Arabia, married to an English woman, against the war, his is the highly intelligent, frustrated voice of reason. Remember to clutch at your collar when he says Americans will stop America, an expression of his faith in the US Constitution. Impossible not to like this guy--he's exceptionally erudite, and when he shakes his head and makes a joke about the unjokable you know he's got a place on E2.
- Lieutenant Josh Rushing: CentCom personnel, responsible for representing the military operation to the global media. Previously a military liaison to Hollywood movie makers, negotiationg script content. Listen to the nevous laughter when a journalist points out how similar "CentCom" sounds to "SitCom." Impossible not to sympathize with this guy--he's excpetionally sincere, and when he speaks on behalf of the military you get the sense he knows his position is ultimately indefensible. He is open-minded and wants to learn about the Arabic culture, but the job he has to do unavoidably makes him look like a cross between a thickskulled roger ramjet robot and a poor lost child.
These two are the centerpieces, and their dialogues are those we would all be having if didn't all more or less already agree. It's excellent to see two people discourse on the subject as people.
- Samir Khader: Al-Jazeera Executive Producer. Like this guy, because he's obviously very clever and doing what no one else wants to or can do, but don't trust him. He's a cynic, and when he says that if Fox offered him a job he'd take it, you believe him. In many ways he's all about the American Dream--saw a entrepreneurial niche in the region and filled it, built up a business, and one day hopes to send his kids to school in the States. Philosophical and practical by turns, and with cigarette always in hand, he has a few scenes touting objectivity and journalistic evenhandedness, but the man has sentiments like everyone else, and they show up in the broadcast schedule.
There are a couple of either featured players, but these are the top three figures. There's a lot of head-shaking going on--Rushing has the youngest face and widest eyes, because he's been there the shortest amount of time. The other two have a world-weary, somewhat beaten-down aura of haziness around them, speaking to their long experience of bloodshed, conflict, and futility in the region.
Squirm, baby, squirm
There's plenty to make you avert your eyes or cover your conscience in Control Room, and I'm not talking solely about the war footage.
You will see American POWs being interviewed, and it's very unsettling. Real fear doesn't look like anything but what it is, and when you see soldiers stripped away of anything but, you're left with people who want their moms, whatever they're saying to the camera. This is the footage that got Al-Jazeera into a trouble with the State Department.
You will see Iraqi men, women, and children dead.
You will see Iraqi men, women, and children screaming at the camera in front of their destroyed houses.
You will see Baghdad on fire.
You will see American soldiers dead.
You will see President Bush saying he hopes American POWs are being treated humanely, as Iraqi POWs are being treated.
You will see Secretary Rumsfeld expressing his disgust at the web of lies being constantly spun by Al-Jazeera.
You will see a war of ideas, a clash of ideology, an open dialogue.
Again, the film is put together in such a way that the US military and government, with its deck of cards, misinformation strategies, tight-lipped civilian casualty apologies, and prematurely celebratory administrators, doesn't come off looking at all good, but the directors try to give Rushing the benefit of individual portrayal, and the key players aren't so much anti-American as anti-Bush, or anti-War.
The Crew +
- Jehane Noujaim: Director
- Abdallah Schleifer: Executive Producer
- Rosadel Varela: Producer, USA
- Hani Salama: Producer, Middle East
- Julia Bacha: Editor, Story Advisor
- Lilah Bankier: Editor
- Charles Marquardt: Editor
- Alan Oxman: Supervising Editor
That a fair number of editors, and they did outstanding work masking their presence, and letting the characters develop the narrative.
- Runtime: 84 minutes
- Rated: Unrated
- Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
A week ago I was in Chicago visiting my parents. We went to a nice restaurant, and I had a very nice piece of sea bass. By the end of the night the conversation turned to politics.
My father voted for Bush in the last election. He will vote for Bush again in the next election. We started to talk about Israel, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and like most people, we pretended to a greater understanding of those things then any of us could possibly have. I asked my father if the war was worth the lives of his sons, or just those of other men. I lost my temper a bit. I banged on the table a bit.
"This is not the place for this," he said. "Calm down. There's no need to raise your voice."
"If not for this," I asked, "then for what?"
That's how wars get started.
Go see it.
Check out the film at www.controlroommovie.com