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Backstage access to al-Jazeera during the recent conflict in Iraq

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DIRECTED BY Jehane Noujaim

STARRING Hassan Ibrahim, Lieutenant Josh Rushing, Samir Khader

Opened July 23, No Cert, 83 mins

After Michael Moore’s carpet-bombing of US military and media complicity in Iraq, Control Room?which receives a limited theatrical release at London’s ICA before hitting our TV screens?offers a timely and more restrained examination of the same themes. Jehane Noujaim, the young Egyptian-American who co-directed the award-winning documentary on the dot.com boom, Startup.com, once again landed in the right place at the right time by securing backstage access to the Arab news station al-Jazeera just as war broke out. Intercutting footage of al-Jazeera headquarters, slammed by Bush and co as a propaganda platform for Bin Laden, with the off-camera workings of the US military’s media information centre in Qatar, Noujaim builds an engrossing portrait of the war of conflicting words and images that accompanies any modern shooting war.

Although some US reviews have attacked it for anti-American bias, Control Room treads a much more delicate path than Fahrenheit 9/11, preferring messy and complex reality to tub-thumping polemic. Among the characters who become unlikely stars of Noujaim’s narrative are the urbane al-Jazeera boss Samir Khader, who claims he would happily trade “the Arab nightmare” for a cosy office at the hawkish US news network Fox. The Sudanese journalist Hassan Ibrahim, a former Bin Laden classmate and BBC reporter, also looms large with his outraged sarcasm and bruised idealism. Even Lieutenant Josh Rushing, the robotic Hollywood-trained publicist with the thankless task of explaining US military policy to a frequently angry hack pack, emerges with a degree of sympathy.

Shot on a minimal budget using hand-held video cameras, Control Room lacks the all-embracing world view and cinematic swagger that a Michael Moore or an Errol Morris might bring. While not a definitive document on Iraq or media bias, it does offer a fascinating insight into the competing versions of truth that lie behind a globalised news machine. There’s plenty of black comedy here, and tragedy, too, when US forces kill an al-Jazeera cameraman. Ultimately, the Arab news channel emerges as probably more spinned against than spinning, a high-tech enterprise run by journalists every bit as cynical and funny and flawed as their US and British counterparts. In other words, not enemies of democracy, but human beings just like us.

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