Both Sides Now
It begins with a trembling red sun and ends with a cloudburst that sends journalists, Western and Arabic, scurrying after cameras left in the Qatari sun. In between, Jehane Noujaim's documentary about the Iraq war,Control Room, explores Al-Jazeera's complicated relationship with the U.S. media, U.S. government and Arab world. We recently spoke with the director about her newest film.
OC Weekly: From MTV's Unfiltered to a documentary about Al-Jazeera. That's quite a leap.Jehane Noujaim: I learned editing at MTV, but most filmmaking techniques I learned from my last film, Startup.com, working with longtime documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. I did a lot of cinema verit—getting elements of a good story by finding complex, interesting characters under pressure who at the same time are very good at what they do. It's when we're under pressure, I find, that the truth of our personalities comes out. With that style, it's all about access, access, access.
We only had six weeks in Qatar to film Control Room because of our visas. It was so nerve-wracking to me because I filmed Startup.com every day for more than a year. I had footage for almost anything transpiring between my characters. It helped that in Control Room, we were in a very intense situation: war. There was more potential for some kind of change or event happening to my characters. Initially, we followed six characters—to hedge our bets, make sure we had some story in at least one character—before editing down to three characters.
Getting started must have been difficult.
When I first got there, I had no funding, no idea of the story or characters. I just knew that in this tiny Gulf state, news would be created for the entire world. I thought I'd concentrate on Al-Jazeera and see where I could get with CentCom, which was 10 miles away. I sat in a guard's office for a week, then finally met with Al-Jazeera's general manager, who was told BBC had exclusive access to the newsroom. Then I got very depressed about the whole thing; I thought about going back to Egypt. But then I met Hassan [Ibrahim, an Al-Jazeera reporter] and Samir [Khader, an Al-Jazeera senior producer], who were extremely intriguing, complex, intelligent people I thought would shed light, at least for me, on the whole situation.
So Hassan and Samir were your ticket in.
Definitely. Hassan told the management, "Look, she'll just be following me around." I told them I won't use lights, that if anybody wants to kick me out, they could. Then they just got used to me being around.
The film is such a compressed journey, with so much happening at one time.
It's just a glimpse of what I saw. It's a perspective—if I was embedded with troops, it'd be a totally different story. But this is a film about the people behind Al-Jazeera, in particular Hassan and Samir, and Josh Rushing, the U.S. military press officer. It was a journey, for me, through their journey in the thick of this weird nexus, this in-between space that was neither Iraq, where things were happening, nor the Pentagon, where decisions were being made—yet a place where information was coming from to shape people's perceptions. That's always fascinated me, having always gone back and forth between the Middle East and the U.S., seeing such different perceptions of the same world event.
Rushing's been traveling with you to screenings?
He did, but now he's basically been silenced by the Marine Corps. He can't give interviews with the press anymore. Which is really upsetting because he's what we need now. He's a paragon for the openness the military should stand for, someone trying to understand the other side, just like Hassan and Samir, with a huge personal interest in bringing both sides of the conflict together—which drew me to each of them.
You have an interesting approach to using friendship as a basis for filmmaking.
It's like having a good friend. The closer you are, the more you know about them—both their strengths and weaknesses, how they see issues. We engaged in conversations more than interviews. I asked questions out of curiosity, rather than to get specific answers or make political points. For documentaries, especially, you have to find people you enjoy hanging out with because there's so much waiting around. You have to be very curious about your topic because you never know with docs—whether they'll ever get made, whether you'll find a story, whether it'll get distribution. Each character I picked understood this was a film attempting to bring two worlds together. And I think they saw in me a belief in them, in their kind of motivation. Without that kind of mutual trust, it's impossible to do a doc. I'd never get at anything true, emotional, interesting.
Al-Jazeera gets so much flak for its so-called anti-Americanism, its pro-terrorist bias.
If anything, they're biased toward the ordinary Iraqi citizen's suffering. I found them like any other news organization I've seen, except they have a different perspective. They have an Arab audience much more interested in what's happening with Arabs on the ground in Iraq than the number of troops coming in or the kind of war machinery we have. That makes complete sense to me. Why do we as Americans expect Al-Jazeera to have an American point of view? It's so self-centered for us to think this way.
Control Room is reviewed in today's Film calendar.
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