Camera Obscura:Documentary Brings Forbidden Images to American Viewers

Judith Gabriel

Egyptian-American documentary producer Jehane Noujaim, whose documentary “Control Room” broke box office records in its first week of screenings at the prestigious New York Film Forum in June, was fascinated by the contradiction between the popularity of Al Jazeera with the Arab public and how it was denounced by many governments, both Arab and the U.S. She was also curious about the people at Al Jazeera, the journalists who were “taking basically hell from the entire world.”

“Over the course of the last year, the station was roundly criticized by the U.S. government, yet I would go home to Egypt and my father would be watching,” she told Al Ahram weekly, commenting on her interest in Al Jazeera. “The contradiction between its popularity with the Arab public and how hated it was by many Arab governments was fascinating. ”

The 29-year-old filmmaker took aim at how the War on Iraq was depicted on Al Jazeera. As the missiles struck Baghdad on March 19, 2003, and the Western media was being “parachuted” into Baghdad to get a ringside seat for the action, Noujaim took a unique vantage point, watching events unfold from inside Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar. 

Within the constraint of her 30-day visa, the Harvard graduate monitored how Al Jazeera’s journalists covered the Iraq war, and the events at nearby US Central Command (Centcom), the temporary media center in Qatar where the world’s journalists gathered during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Here Americans have long conversations with their counterparts at Al Jazeera, 

The resulting film was the surprising documentary, “Control Room.” Working with a digital camera and almost no crew, she alternates classic fly-on-the-wall journalism and interviews with the station’s reporters and producers. The documentary has quickly become a conduit for images of war and conflict that do not usually show up on American television screens. During the war, and its aftermath, the U.S. has repeatedly accused Al Jazeera reporters of bias, the result, perhaps, of presenting to the world footage from which the American media had shied away. The images produced an uproar in the U.S. and Britain, and led Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to accuse Al Jazeera of violating the Geneva Conventions. 

From Rumsfeld accusing Al Jazeera of faking pictures of civilian deaths, Noujaim cuts to indisputable pictures of real victims from the American bombing. By bringing these images to a larger American public that doesn’t watch Al Jazeera, Noujaim’s documentary poses questions about why Americans have not seen these images. The question gained momentum in the follow-up to the emergence of prisoner abuse photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison. It is as though the reality depicted on Al Jazeera could not be validated until it was seen through a series of deflecting lenses. What was unavailable to the American viewer becomes the only reality for coverage by the journalistic standards of Al Jazeera journalists, who were reporting what was occurring before their eyes. The resulting photographic images were dismissed by the U.S. government as being a staged horror show. It is a case of international “camera obscura.” What America cannot see, Al Jazeera is accused of inventing. 

As Al Jazeera producer Deema Khatib puts it in the documentary, if there really was no agenda, wouldn’t we welcome all information, all images? Isn’t the failure to report dead civilians or American coffins equally a distortion of the truth? Can real images be propaganda? 

Noujaim and her co-producer, Hani Salama, followed Al Jazeera journalists Samir Khader and Hassan Ibrahim throughout the filming. Ibrahim, a journalist who used to work for the BBC, grew up in Saudi Arabia, attended grade school with Osama bin-Laden, and went to college in Arizona. He has friends in the CIA, according to Noujaim. Khader was personal translator for the king of Jordan and has very surprising views on the U.S. He takes the most philosophical approach to it all, asserting matter-of-factly the importance of media and propaganda in any war. 

At the American PR headquarters, press liaison Lt. Josh Rushing emerges as an equally contradictory personality. The former Hollywood contact for the military seems to genuinely believe in his mission, and appears hopelessly bewildered when his apparent good intentions meet with suspicion and worse. At one point in the film he responds to Al Jazeera’s explicit depictions of those killed during the war: “The night they showed the P.O.W.’s and dead soldiers,” he says, “it was powerful, because Americans won’t show those kinds of images. It made me sick to my stomach.” 

In a rush of reviews and articles following the release of the film, Noujaim’s work was the focus of fascination, analysis and praise. Credibility has been accorded to the filmmaker, and, by inference to Al Jazeera itself. Salon.Com, critic David Sterritt, and the Christian Science Monitor, have noted the skill with which the director tackles her subject. American film critics such as Roger Ebert have gotten the message. Ebert writes about “an extraordinary moment in the film when Samir Khader, an engaging and articulate producer for Al Jazeera, confides that if he were offered a job with Fox News, he would take it. He wants his children to seek their futures in the United States, he says, and I carefully wrote down his next words: ‘To exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream.’ These are the words of a man Rumsfeld calls a liar. That many American news organizations including the New York Times, have had to apologize for errors in their coverage of Iraq may indicate that Rumsfeld and his teammates may also have supplied them with ... inaccuracies.” 

Noujaim has made other films. In 1996, she directed “Mokattam,” an Arabic film about a garbage-collecting village. She then joined MTV News and Documentary Division as a producer for the documentary series Unfiltered. In 2001 she produced and directed an award-winning feature film, “,” and also worked in the Middle East and the U.S. as a director and cinematographer on documentaries, including “Born Rich,” “Only the Strong Survive,” and “Down from the Mountain.” 

Noujaim was born and raised in Cairo to a Lebanese-Egyptian father, Khalil, and American mother, Beth. In an interview in Egypt’s Al Ahram Weekly, Noujaim said that “Growing up and going back and forth between Egypt and the United States provided the initial entry point. Seeing the complex difference in perspectives on the same events between the two cultures made me start thinking about news, the creation of the news, who’s responsible, and then on to questions of how these two peoples are supposed to communicate if their basic perceptions of the world as provided by their news are different.”