For those who have been living in a cave for the last decade or so, Al Jazeera is essentially the Arabic version of CNN. It's an Arab news network that has become the most watched channel in the Middle East. While the Bush administration has referred to it as the 'mouth piece of Osama Bin Laden' this latest documentary from Jehane Noujaim, a man of Arabic descent, demonstrates that there is a lot more to their brand of reporting and broadcasting than simple fundamentalist Muslim propaganda.
The focus of the movie is on the way that the Iraq war was reported on by the channel in contrast to how it was reported here in North America and in England. Various members of Al Jazeera are interviewed as are members of the American military, and the film is peppered with clips and comments from various members of the current administration in power (odd that I write this on the day of the election – I may have to come in and edit this later tonight) who don't really seem to know what to think of the channel and its tactics.
The filmmakers do point out that at times Al Jazeera does play up to Arab nationalism, but they do this in the same way that Fox News plays up to American patriotism – they're working their angle to suit their target audience. In a sense, it's good business. But at the same time, there does seem to be a sense of integrity that most of these guys and gals have working in their favor. We witness a production manager chewing out an interview coordinator for booking a guest who was too biased as he felt it would come across as not an interview so much as a propaganda piece.
Plenty of time in the movie is given to the American military's side of the story. Press Officer for Central Command Lt. Joshua Rushing gets plenty of camera time and isn't afraid to give his take on things in regards to how the war is being reported on for the Arab community. One of the most interesting and heartfelt segments of the feature is when Rushing explains how he was outraged when Al Jazeera showed image of dead American soldiers laying in the streets, victims of an attack. He explains how he literally felt sick to his stomach when viewing these scenes. He then goes on to further explain how he wasn't nearly as effected by the images that were shown of the dead Iraqi people, also caught in the attack – some soldiers, some merely children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he realized that this made him a hypocrite in a sense, he admits to having to deal with the conflicting emotions that this forced upon him when he realized it was the same channel that was showing casualties from both sides – something that hasn't happened in the mainstream American media.
Some of the news footage contained in the documentary is gut wrenching but there's no disputing the powerful emotions that it will conjure up. Sensitive viewers might have a problem with it but unfortunately, this is the reality of the situation over there – or at least one take on it. We do witness Iraqi citizens obviously upset about the Americans dropping bombs on them and questioning the justification of the war, but I think if any of us were in their shoes we'd be doing the same thing. What the film really demonstrates is the differences in reporting tactics and in what is or isn't reported between 'their' news channel and 'our' news channels. It makes for very interesting viewing material and ultimately (and thankfully) doesn't beat the viewer over the head with the filmmakers' personal political beliefs as many documentaries as of late have been guilty of. The Control Room does an excellent job of merely presenting the facts in a pretty balanced format and letting the viewer decide for themselves how they feel about Al Jazeera and what they do.
The Control Room is presented in a 1.85.1 widescreen transfer. Seeing as the movie was shot on video there is some degradation in quality in certain scenes but for the most part this transfer looks quite sharp. Even some of the archival footage is in nice shape. There is some mild edge enhancement and video noise noticeable throughout but the image remains pretty crisp and certainly looks better than most shot on video productions.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Soundtrack contains both English and Arabic, though the vast majority of it is in English and there are optional English subtitles supplied as well. Sadly, the audio is the weakest part of this package. Because a lot of this material was shot under conditions that are obviously less than ideal, a few scenes aren't recorded quite as strongly as you might hope and because of this, a few parts here and there are a tad muffled. This isn't a huge problem as it only happens occasionally but it does happen none-the-less. Aside from that, audio quality is average. Most of the dialogue is pretty clean and there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion at all. It's just too bad about those few scenes that are a wee bit too quiet. There are also subtitles available in French, Spanish and Arabic as well as English and Arabic closed captioning.
There aren't a ton of extra features on this Lion's Gate DVD, but there are a few and the ones that are here are quite interesting. First up is the theatrical trailer for The Control Room. This is followed by a massive selection of deleted scenes (this selection clocks in at about an hour and a half, slightly longer than the feature film itself!), most of which were likely cut for pacing reasons and for reasons of presenting a balanced look at Al Jazeera rather than a slanted one. Totaling fifty scenes, as you watch this material you can see why some of it might have been cut in the interests of presenting both sides of the story surrounding the controversial news channel. There are also trailers for other Lion's Gate films, none of which are related to the feature on this DVD.
Lion's Gate has also supplied three different audio commentary tracks. The first track is with director Jehane Noujaim and Hani Salama (the producer and cinematographer for the film). The second track is with Captain Josh Rushing, the Central Command Press Officer who is featured prominently in the film as an interviewee. The third and final track features Al Jazeera Senior Producers Hassan Ibrahim and Samir Khader who are also featured in the film. There is a lot of repetition between the three tracks, understandable when you think about it, but they're all worth at least sampling for a few minutes here and there. Listening to Rushing look back on things is quite interesting and having it contrasted with the Arabic point of view provided by some of the other commentators can be pretty thought provoking.
The Control Room is an absolutely fascinating look at something most of us don't really know much about. It presents the story of Al Jazeera in a pretty unbiased way, something that is unfortunately all too rare in these times, and offers both sides of the story to let the viewer make up their own mind about the issues. Lion's Gate's DVD looks pretty good, has acceptable sound quality and contains some interesting extra features which makes this disc easily come Highly Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.