Truth ultimately finds its way to people's eyes and ears and hearts." This sentence, uttered by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, is heard midway through "Control Room," Jehane Noujaim's bristling documentary about Al Jazeera, the satellite news network, during the American invasion of Iraq. You can only hope that Mr. Rumsfeld is right, though his words inevitably call to mind the adage that in war, truth is the first casualty.
That may be so, but the Egyptian-born, Harvard-educated Ms. Noujaim, who worked with the legendary documentarians D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus on movies like "Only the Strong Survive" and "Startup.com" (which she directed with Ms. Hegedus), proves that cinéma vérité is alive and well, and perhaps more potent and necessary than ever.
Stills from Jehane Noujaim's
Last spring, in the days before the war began, Ms. Noujaim and her crew perched like unassuming, many-eyed flies on the walls of CentCom, the makeshift media village in Qatar where the United States military presented its version of events to assembled journalists from around the world. The great value of the impersonal, observational technique Ms. Noujaim employs is that it immerses the viewer in the contingency and complexity of events as they happen. Whatever your opinions about the war, the conduct of the journalists who covered it and the role of Al Jazeera in that coverage, you are likely to emerge from "Control Room" touched, exhilarated and a little off-balance, with your certainties scrambled and your assumptions shaken. All of which makes it an indispensable example of the inquisitive, self-questioning democratic spirit that is its deep and vexed subject.
In Mr. Rumsfeld's view, presented in several news clips, Al Jazeera, the most widely viewed source of television news in the Arab world, and one that operates independent of any government, is little more than an instrument of anti-American propaganda. "We are dealing with people who are willing to lie to the world to make their case," he declares, brandishing a rhetorical stone inside his glass house. "Control Room," while it takes a more sympathetic view of the network, is also attuned to the paradoxes and predicaments, as well as the dangers, its journalists face.
Most of those who appear in the film are skeptical, to say the least, of the Bush administration's policies, but they also cling to a journalistic ethic of objectivity and fairness, trying to navigate between their political allegiances and the code of their craft. (In its visits with reporters from Fox News, CNN and NBC, the film makes the implicit point that American journalists face similar pressures.) More than that, many of them, forthright in their contempt for the American government, are equally candid in their embrace of the values of free expression and open debate that are in notably short supply in their countries of origin.
"Between us," says Sameer Khader, the rumpled, balding senior producer who is one of the most fascinating figures in the film, "if I'm offered a job at Fox News, I'll take it." He plans to send his children to American universities "to exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream."
Mr. Khader, sleep-deprived and chain-smoking, comes across as both decent and cynical, with sharp and sometimes surprising news judgment. At one point he upbraids a junior producer for broadcasting an interview with an American academic critical of the war. "That was not analysis; that was hallucination," he snaps, leaving the confused producer to protest weakly, "But he was talking about his own country."
The mood of "Control Room" is both frenetic and grim, especially when one of Al Jazeera's Baghdad correspondents is killed, along with two other journalists, by an American rocket. But the movie, which will be shown tonight and Sunday as part of the New Directors/New Films series and opens commercially in Manhattan on May 21, also allows for a flicker of optimism. Because Ms. Noujaim's cameras never leave CentCom, the war itself, visible on video feeds and retrieved news segments, becomes the backdrop for the main action, which is a series of rambling, inconclusive arguments.
Many of these take place between Hassan Ibrahim, an affable, bearish former BBC journalist, and Lt. Josh Rushing, a CentCom press officer. Like the journalists of Al Jazeera, Lieutenant Rushing sees himself as working in the service of the truth, and he approaches his job with both patience and empathy. He and Mr. Ibrahim spend what seems like hours talking past each other, but at least they are talking.
Directed by Jehane Noujaim; in Arabic and English, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Ms. Noujaim and Hani Salama; edited by Julia Bacha; produced by Rosadel Varela and Ms. Salama; released by Magnolia Pictures. Running time: 83 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown tonight at 6 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center and Sunday at 1 p.m. at the MoMA Gramercy Theater, 127 East 23rd Street, Manhattan, as part of the 33rd New Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the department of film and media of the Museum of Modern Art.
WITH: Sameer Khader, Lt. Josh Rushing, Tom Mintier, Hassan Ibrahim, David Shuster and Deema Khatib.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company