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June 18, 2004

[AFF] Control Room

Jehane Noujaim's Control Room (IMDB) continues the trend of excellent documentary filmmaking that we've been witnessing over the last few years. I had a chance to watch the film last night at its Atlanta Film Festival screening with a packed and enthusiastic audience (for those Atlantans who missed it, Control Room will be opening Friday at the Midtown Art Theater). Noujaim's film is very compelling, and I've been struggling the last few days to find a way to review it, so I'll admit that this review is probably more impressionistic than most.

The film, which deploys a classic cinema verite style, opens with several Arabs watching one of Bush's pre-war speeches on Al Jazeera and essentially introduces one of the basic, but significant, arguments made by the film, which is to illustrate how the US and Arab narratives of the war lead to vastly different perspectives on it. In his Village Voice review, J. Hoberman notes that "every conflict is a contest of competing narratives." In a later sequence, one of the Al Jazeera employees echoes Walter Benjamin when he observes that "history is written by the victors."

The scenes in CentCom are also fascinating, specifically the interactions between Lietenant John Rushing, a young American information officer, and Sudanese journalist Hassan Ibrahim, whom Hoberman describes as "a former bin Laden classmate, onetime Deadhead, and ex-BBC man." Initially, Rushing maintains the classic justification for the war in Iraq based on humanitarian grounds. Saddam Hussein is a ruthless dictator, and the US has an opportunity to bring democracy to Iraq. Gradually, Rushing begins to question some of these beliefs, or at the very least, he's willing to discuss them, and one of the film's most powerful scenes shows Rushing and Ibrahim planning to get together for dinner to further discuss their perceptions of the war.

One aspect of the film that I found fascinating was the clear efforts that Al Jazeera confronted simply to define itself. It's interesting to watch the debates in teh newsroom about what news should be covered, and from what perspective. Other scenes portray the absurdity of the military efforts to manage the media in the war. One sequence that got a lot of laughs involved the infamous deck of cards, which the military revealed at a CentCom press conference. The army announced the existence of the deck, but then failed to provide the press with any copies of the deck or even to display the deck in a public space. Throughout the film we witness the ways in which information is managed, and in a sense, it may not be a terribly new story, but with violence in Iraq continuing, it's a story that needs to be told with great urgency.

There are several humorous moments in the film in which Donald Rumsfeld is accusing Al Jazeera faking evidence in order to drum up opposition to the war. In fact, Rumsfeld's comment, "the truth will come out" probably got the biggest laugh of the night. I'm still thinking about this movie, two days after seeing it initially, and I think it may be the kind of film that I'll want to write about in an exteneded essay.

Update: Check out Amardeep Singh's review of the film.

Update 2: I'd planned to mention the cinetrix's review of Control Room before, but other things intervened. She also links to this Village Voice article on the film (which includes an extended interview with Lt. John Rushing). Kelly at Shiny Blue Grasshopper also has a good review of the film.

Posted by chuck at June 18, 2004 12:56 AM

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The Daily Show featured an interview with Hassan Ibrahim a couple of days ago. It turns out that John Rushing was transferred to the Marines(?), because the Army was disappointed with his appearance on Control Room, which is ironic because he actually provides a sympathetic face to the army.

Posted by: Chris Martin at June 18, 2004 12:14 PM

I must have misunderstood what happened then. If I remember correctly, Roger Ebert was reporting (based on an article in Salon) that Rushing had left the military altogether. No matter what, Rushing's treatment is pretty disappointing because he clearly comes across as the most sympathetic military person in the film. Wish I could have seen that episode of the Daily Show.

I've also been thinking about how "Control Room" might play in comparison to "Fahrenheit 9/11," and in a sense, I think it *might be* a more effective critique, simply because Moore's presence in his film is so immediately polarizing. Of course, I haven't yet seen "Fahrenheit."

Posted by: chuck at June 18, 2004 12:21 PM

I agree, Chuck, that this might end up being a sleeper that actuall packs a bigger punch.

I also blogged about this film this morning... I think I'm a little more ambivalent about the overall product, but maybe I'm just not a huge fan of 'verite' roughness.

Posted by: Amardeep at June 18, 2004 12:51 PM

For some reason, verite appeals to me. I don't buy that it's any more authentic than slickly produced documentaries such as those by Errol Morris, but it may be that verite communicates the idea that anyone can pick up a camera and make a film. This is not to suggest that Noujaim's film would have been easy to make, but I think its "roughness" illustrates just how much you can do with a relatively cheap digital camera.

I think you're right about Scott's review (cited in your review of the film). In my first draft of this review, I'd linked to Scott's comments about the contingency of these events (and our interpretation of them), and, yes, there were some sections where the news coverage shown in teh film seemed fairly banal.

Posted by: chuck at June 18, 2004 3:59 PM

I just saw Control Room today. Your review sums it up really well.

btw, according to Salon, Rushing was transferred within the military and is now back in the US. They report that because he's been silenced by the Pentagon, he's trying to get out of the military.

Posted by: Kelly at June 19, 2004 7:35 PM

Thanks for the clarification on Rushing's status. It's a difficult film to write about for a numebr of reasons. Hopefully I'll be able to take some time and watch it a second time before it leaves the theater.

Posted by: chuck at June 19, 2004 8:15 PM

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