Controlling the Truth

in 51th Sydney Film Festival

by Julian Wood

It is now a familiar lament to say that ‘the first casualty of war is truth’, but this phrase was never more relevant than today. As the world now knows, the American-inspired invasion of Iraq has brought forth belated fierce resistance and has left that country on the brink of civil war. Meanwhile America is having difficulty managing the news back home. It seems that more and more US soldiers are returning in body bags even after the war is supposed to have ended.

In this charged, and unresolved, situation Jehane Noujaim’s cogent eighty-four minute documentary Control Room bursts out like a firebomb. Noujaim is an Egyptian-born film maker who has studied in the US (Harvard) and has made several films before this one.

Control Room is listed as a US/ Egyptian co-production but it certainly has a perspective on the US that you will not find anywhere in America outside the films of Mike Moore. This does not set out to be an anti-American film but its accumulation of evidence strongly criticises the current Bush administration, and by the end, the audience feels much of the film’s anger. Sound Jeffersonian principles are being trashed by a ‘cowboy’ regime.

The documentary centres around CenterCom, the USA’s mobile media unit in the Middle East where many war journalists are briefed by handpicked media-friendly US Army personnel.

The US spokespeople seem pleasant enough but quite rigid and increasingly defensive as events unfold. Obviously they would not be speaking for the invading coalition if they did not believe in the cause but, as confusion rains down about the progress of the war, they become less and less able to hide behind their party line.

Some of the interviews between the Al Jazeera journalists and the young military media men are a particularly revealing. US Media Liaison Officer Lt. Rushing starts off smiling confidently underneath his military crew cut. However, as the film’s narrative progresses, he increasingly comes to see that the situation must have two sides. Apparently Lt Rushing has subsequently left the army and is hoping for a career in movies. Only in America, as they say.

The film is also a tribute to, and a portrait of, Al Jazeera, the most widely acclaimed Arab satellite news service. Many of the Al Jazeera journalists had been trained in Western agencies like the BBC’s respected World Service and they are interesting individuals. They combine the seasoned journalist’s world-weary realism with a complete understanding of both Western and Arab cultures. This is one of the film’s strengths too.

The structure of the film is no more linear than the unfolding reality of the war. Rather it moves quickly from event to event like a journalist chasing a story. As the war continues and public opinion changes, there is no natural ending to the film. The film is very up to date, however it does not cover the crucial revelations such as the abuse at Abu Graib prison. In general though, the drift of the film, and the case for reporting on all sides which goes beyond propaganda and sloganising, has already been made.

Al Jazeera was once portrayed by Bush and his allies as part of the problem but it is obvious from this film that it is more likely to contribute to a balancing of views. Full reporting is a vital part of the democracy which the West trumpets and which Bush claims to be supporting. When the ownership of the Western media is so concentrated into monopoly hands (one thinks of how Rupert Murdoch preferred his many publications not to take an anti-Iraq war stance for example), this film is a blow for pluralism.

Al Jazeera looks like a serious TV station (still run on a shoestring one suspects) which is doing its very best to present another view. Given the status and reach it has achieved in the Arab world in such a short time, it must be answering a need. Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab propaganda has been a real influence on public opinion in the West which stops people understanding what is justifiable and what is not in such conflicts. In a world which has become increasingly ‘univocal’ this film represent a voice which needs to be heard, perhaps especially in the West.