DVD RE-RUN: Jehane Noujaim On “Control Room”: “My Loyalties Are to the Characters”
by Erica Abeel
[EDITORS NOTE: “Control Room” will be released on DVD this week; indieWIRE interviewed director Jehane Noujaiim earlier this year.]
If ever a film could be termed incendiary, it’s “Control Room.” Helmed by 29-year-old Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (co-director of “Startup.com”), it scans the inner workings of Al Jazeera and comes up with a balanced view of the Arab satellite news agency, even suggesting it might traffic more in truth than our own news media.
That takes cojones — Al Jazeera, with its 40 million Arab viewers, is routinely demonized in America as “Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece.” Officials here get riled by the network’s “inflammatory” counter narrative, which has the nerve to foreground the suffering of the war’s Arab victims, broadcasting graphic visuals of the ongoing carnage.
Yet Al Jazeera is also a filmmaker’s dream: it continually makes news while covering it. In late April, Colin Powell censured it for “politically motivated” reports that undercut our efforts at “reconstruction” in Iraq (or, um, program for economic/political domination of the region.) And as I write, Bush chose lesser channels to apologize for abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, making Al Jazeera conspicuous by its absence.
“Control Room” also testifies to Noujaim’s remarkable coup in gaining access to Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Talk about “ideal” timing. Noujaim (Harvard by way of tony prep school Milton Academy) started shooting two weeks before the invasion, offering a courtside view of the onset and outbreak of the Iraqi war. Cutting back and forth between American broadcasters and Al Jazeera, the film lays out the divergent ways the war was reported by the Arabs and the West. Example: the toppling of Saddam’s statue, according to the Arab channel, was orchestrated as an American media event, with teen participants who were not even Iraqis.
Despite its incendiary aura, though, Noujaim’s film, a standout at Sundance and Lincoln Center‘s New Directors/New Films, is less political broadside than a riveting account of how the news is created and packaged. It chronicles the chroniclers, zooming in on a cast of complex characters who rarely fail to enlighten and surprise.
Most fascinating is Sameer Khader, Al Jazeera senior producer, overworked, chain-smoking, brimming with mischief. Also featured is former BBC reporter Hassan Ibrahim, a witty Sudanese Brit who opposes the U.S. presence in the Middle East, (“you are the most powerful nation on earth… you can crush everyone… but don’t ask us to love it as well”) while praising American democracy. Young female producer Deema Khatib wryly analyzes Western war coverage from her control booth vantage point. And at nearby U.S. Centcom, American press liaison Lt. John Rushing manfully struggles to justify the American position to the Arab press (and perhaps to himself.)
Jehane Noujaim is tall, jet-browed, ivory-skinned, with a disarming smile and zero pretension. She wears pointy lizard cowboy boots, and carries the responsibility for this gutsy film with grace. Recently she took time out from last-minute tweaking of the final cut to talk with indieWIRE. Magnolia Pictures opened the film on Friday at New York’s Film Forum; it will roll out to the rest of the country in June.
indieWIRE: What’s the response so far to your film?
Jehane Noujaim: Amazingly positive. I was worried that people here would be upset by it. In Egypt they told me I wouldn’t be able to release the film in the United States. But people have been moved, grateful, appreciative. They tell me it’s been a real eye-opener.
iW: What was the initial impetus for going to Qatar?
Noujaim: The idea came from a few different sources. Al Jazeera is demonized by the United States, yet in Egypt my father would be watching it. Another contradiction is between its popularity within the Arab populace and how hated it is by many Arab governments. It’s been kicked out of several countries for criticizing their rulers — because it doesn’t offer sheltered news. It will have an Israeli debate an Islamist, as part of its democratic mission, And Arab royalist regimes are uncomfortable with that. They say, Why debate? You’re not going to find any answers. I figured, if Al Jazeera makes so many governments upset, yet is really loved by the population as a whole, they must be doing something right.
Also, Al Jazeera’s main location is in Qatar, and the U.S. military established their Centcom about 20 miles way. It was an amazing nexus in this tiny Persian Gulf country the size of Rhode Island. All the information the world received about the war was coming out of this place.
iW: How did you gain access to Al Jazeera?
Noujaim: I got in through Abdullah Schleifer, a journalist who teaches at the American University in Cairo. He set up our initial meeting with Al Jazeera, and he also brought us to Centcom, where he was interviewing Lt. Rushing for his paper.
iW: I assume you encountered resistance from Al Jazeera. How did you sell yourself?
Noujaim: I told them I was working completely independently, and promised to use small cameras, no lights, and stay in the background. But the people who really gave us access were our characters.
We met Hassan and Sameer, both chain smokers, in the Al Jazeera cafeteria. We sat around and drank a lot of coffee. They believed in us — you need someone on the inside who trusts you. They saw we were trying to understand how the news was being created at Al Jazeera and Centcom, rather than trying to forward some agenda. And they saw we were interested in them as individuals within this system.
Schleifer, who became our executive producer, led us to Lt. Josh Rushing, who was interested in what we were doing and very open.
Deema, after watching us for a week or so, felt that we weren’t after the “veiled woman behind the controls” cliché, and said she wanted to be part of it.
iW: How did the staff at Al Jazeera react to your filming?
Noujaim: We were moving around people accustomed to film shoots, so my camera became invisible to them. However, they understood the power of images and editing, so we had to gain people’s trust to get them to speak openly and act naturally around us.
iW: How did you get an established journalist like CNN‘s Tom Mintier to level with you?
Noujaim: We went up to pretty much everyone who was working at Centcom. There was a lot of fear among journalists at the time: Peter Arnett had just been fired for talking to Iraqi television. But Tom Mintier was always questioning Centcom’s methods of operation — for instance when he speaks about Centcom “burying the lead” of the taking of Baghdad by focusing on the Jessica Lynch story.
iW: Did you ever feel in any danger?
Noujam: Well, I’m sure my phone was tapped in Qatar. They have translations in 50 languages at the ready, and if you so much as mention the words “bin Laden” or “tapes,” you’re tapped. I started hearing weird clicks during phone calls.
iW: What governed your choice of individuals featured in the film?
Noujaim: I’ve discovered I can’t make a film about people I dislike. I wanted surprising, engaging, charismatic, complex people. I wanted to show them as human beings.
iW: One of my favorites was Sameer Khader, who threw out provocative statements. Said he’d like his children to have an American education and “exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream” and that he’d work for Fox if they offered him a job. What piece of that was serious?
Noujaim: I think he was serious about giving his kids an American education. You know, Arabs are critical of United States foreign policy, but they also associate the U.S. with democratic principles and opportunity.
As for taking a job with Fox, Sameer told me “it would be an experience for me.” Qatar is a hard place to live. It’s just a few hotels and a mall, without the cultural depth of, say, Jordan. These journalists have left their families behind to come work in the middle of the desert.
iW: So much is going on in the film: news feeds coming into the control room, conflicting reportage, debates on world politics. How did you devise a structure?
Noujaim: Through trial and error. We ended up with seven hours of film, and had six characters. We then decided to order it chronologically, while moving back and forth between different points of view. Then we looked at all the characters, picked out the best scenes, and ordered them chronologically. Next we had to figure out how to weave it all together. I wanted to convey surprise, confusion, discovery — reproduce my own process in making the film. I used editors of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I got a richer film that way.
iW: Would you say you were objective in this film?
Noujaim: Well, “objectivity is a bit of mirage,” as one of my characters says.
I was biased towards the characters I was following: Mintier, Deema, Rushing, Sameer, Hassan.
iW: But didn’t you bring your own political bias to the mix?
Noujaim: I don’t know enough or feel qualified to make political judgments. I didn’t have any strong beliefs going into this. I was just very curious about who was giving the information to the world.
iW: That sounds a bit disingenuous.
Noujaim: I was obviously upset with the death of Iraqis, just as I was with the death of Americans during the war. But I tried to be as fair as possible in my portrayal of the people in Jazeera and Central Command — though audiences tend to identify with one character or another. I did not intend for this film to be an endorsement of either Al Jazeera or the western news media. It’s true that I follow three sympathetic characters who don’t fit the stereotype of wild-eyed pan-Arabist propagandists on the one side, or a robotic military press officer on the other. My loyalties are to the characters as they scramble to make sense of the war and present their points of view.
But in the interests of fairness, I edited back in some lines of Hassan at the last minute. When someone asks, “Who is going to stop the United States?” Hassan answers: “The United States is… I have absolute faith in the American constitution. The American people are going to stop the American empire.”
iW: When you entered Harvard, you wanted to be a doctor. What drew you to filmmaking?
Noujaim: I took courses in the School of Visual Arts. Harvard is a great school for the arts because they have lots of money and gave us free film — if there’s anything a student filmmaker needs, it’s film. For a long time I’d admired D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. “Don’t Look Back” was just about my favorite film.
iW: What did you learn from working with them?
Noujaim: Working with Chris on “Startup.com” I learned about editing. And I learned to pick inspirational characters — for “Startup” I was following my roommate, who at the time was involved in an internet startup. I think most important, I learned that a documentary should be as close as possible to a fiction film, and capture characters under pressure who are on a journey.
iW: How have you gotten so far so young? Please don’t say you’ve been lucky.
Noujaim: [Laughing] My parents don’t think I’ve come so far. They say I still don’t have a place to live. And I have been lucky. It’s helped to be open to people and events.
Also, people don’t know about my many failed attempts. I tried to make a film about the “branding” of America PR woman Charlotte Beers was hired to spruce up the United States image post 9/11. But the film was a disaster. All my tapes got confiscated by the Egyptian government or the Americans.
iW: What’s up next?
Noujaim: I won’t know until after I’ve finished with “Control Room.” I’ll continue making films because I love being able to drop into other people’s worlds. My goal is to be constantly learning.