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    Control Room

    Camera obscura

    "Control Room," an attempt to show how Al Jazeera and the rest of the press covered the Iraq War, doesn't manage to put a camera in the right place at the right time to provide many true insights.


    Sometimes, documentary makers say, when you hang around long enough with a camera and a microphone, you catch a moment of magic. Sometimes, if you're unlucky or impatient, you don't. "Control Room" is a documentary that doesn't.

    Directed by: Jehane Noujaim.
    Produced by: Hani Salama, Rosadel Varela.
    Featuring: Samir Khader, Lt. Josh Rushing, Hassan Ibrahim, Deema Khatib, Tom Mintier, David Shuster, Abdallah Schleifer.
    Edited by: Julia Bacha, Lila Bankier, Alan Oxman, Charles Marquardt.
    Executive producer: Abdallah Schleifer.
    In English and Arabic with English subtitles.
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100

    Jehane Noujaim, one of the directors of "" showed up in Iraq with a camera to chronicle the news coverage of last year's war, and what she got was a slapdash selection of random moments that may be occasionally informative but fail to tell the story.

    If the "Control Room" grab bag yields one worthwhile observation, it is the difference between the thoroughly managed American press corps, taking its daily handouts from military spokesman several countries away from the action, and the Al Jazeera crews getting the news firsthand from Iraqis on the ground. The Americans know they're being herded like cattle, and yet their lack of perspective keeps them from understanding what they're missing. Some are more clueless frat boys than seasoned observers of Middle Eastern affairs.

    Control Room  
    This is the crucial distinction of the war coverage in 2003-2004, as it was in 1991. When a war consists primarily of aerial bombing, there are two ways to cover the story, and one of them is wrong. The story as seen from the American side consists of some people pushing buttons in airplanes and returning to base, mission accomplished. The real story, however, is visible only from the ground, where the effects of those bombs are felt. The Arab networks were there, while the Westerners (with the notable exception of the British paper The Independent) were not. The war, and its effect on Iraqi morale, look completely different from the "Mission Accomplished" view we got in the U.S.

    "Control Room" does capture some of the attitude of the Western press corps — including a few correspondents who know how badly they're being used and many who don't — and follows several Al Jazeera correspondents as well. It touches on one Marine spokesman's gradual awakening to how different the war looked through Arab eyes from the propaganda that his fellow officers are mouthing, and that's one of the more worthwhile bits of discovery the film has to offer. But the film's insights are few and scattered, and there's a reason for that: If you pay close attention to where Noujaim goes with her camera, she spends most of her time in the wrong places, watching journalists do routine work and have collegial conversations, while the story is happening elsewhere.

      "Control Room" appears to be a one-woman lark — a roll of the dice. Be in all the right places at all the right times and you might have something, but be merely human and you get home with a bunch of marginal scenes.
    At least one other documentary crew was on the same story at the same time — they must have bumped elbows more than once. "Exclusive to Al Jazeera," which aired last year on PBS's "Wide Angle," went much deeper than this film, picking up on the intense conflict between the Arab networks and the American government. Keeping a much closer watch on the newsrooms at Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyah, the PBS film captures not just daily routine but actual courage under pressure. Say what you want about Al Jazeera — judging from their English-language web site, they live up to some American complaints about one-sided news coverage — but they spent the war doing exactly what real journalists do: Going to where the story is and telling the truth about what's there.

    Going to where the story is is what Noujaim failed to do. She certainly didn't set out to make a mediocre movie, but — unlike "," which simply required crews to follow the right two guys around — this project needed more resources and got less. "Control Room" appears to be a one-woman lark — a roll of the dice. Be in all the right places at all the right times and you might have something, but be merely human and you get home with a bunch of marginal scenes and only the sketchiest chance of editing them together into a story. "Control Room" is probably as good a patchwork as she could stitch together from the scattered pieces she brought back from Qatar, but is not the work of a lucky filmmaker.

    MAY 24, 2004

    Reader comments on Control Room:

  • An Important movie   from Kathy Prescott, Aug 4, 2004
  • Control Room   from medina, May 5, 2005

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