CONTROL ROOM: Arabs speaking for themselves.

Control Room

dir. Noujaim
Opens Fri July 2
Cinema 21

According to the director of Control Room, Jehane Noujaim, the idea of setting up a satellite news agency in Qatar came from an American think tank that believed it would help modernize the Arab world, and that a modernized Arab world would be less hostile to America and its interests. The thinkers were correct in the sense that the news agency--Al Jazeera--has helped modernize the Arab world, but not in the way they imagined.

Real modernization demands change at every level (economic, social, sexual, racial). It challenges all resistance to its progress. The ideal result of modernization is expanded human rights; the ideal result of Americanization is expanded consumer rights.

American intellectuals/humanists (on both the right and left) often confuse Americanization not only with modernization but also with globalization. But Americanization is centered whereas globalization (which might be considered to be the final product of the modernizing processes) is decentered. And this is what Control Room is really about: the decentering of the West (Japan, Europe, U.S., or ¥€$, as Rem Koolhaas put it in his essay "Junk-Space") and the formation of the multiple capitals, information sources, news stations that are outside of its diminishing borders.

Early in Control Room, which concerns Al Jazeera's coverage of the early stages of the Iraq War II, a black African Muslim reporter called Hassan Ibrahim is seen greeting a European reporter whom he recognizes from the past. The European asks him if he is still with the BBC, and Ibrahim says no, he is now with Al Jazeera. "That is where everyone's going," says the European rather sulkingly. The BBC is no longer the news source for the Arab world; it has been replaced by a news source that is based in the Arab world. This shift is of great importance not because it means that Arabs can finally speak for themselves (a benefit that is limited to a now-dead postcolonial, nationalist project) but because it means they are actively competing with the BBC and CNN for a share of a global information market.

"There are villagers in Egypt who collectively save their small earnings so they can buy a satellite dish and watch Al Jazeera," explains Jehane Noujaim during a visit to promote her documentary. "It really is transforming the Arab world. It has 40 million viewers. Nothing like that has ever happened before." Born in Egypt and educated in America, Jehane Noujaim is a filmmaker who has about her an air that can only be described as the spirit of globalization. All of the complexities of a reality that is determined by multinational, multicultural, and multiracial forces seem completely fused in her presence, in her way of speaking, and her clothes (cowboy boots, leather jacket, Parisian bag). Whereas an intellectual or artist of the postcolonial period (which ended in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union and apartheid) would have been burdened or collapsed by the contradictions of our present borderless reality, Noujaim seems content with (if not buoyed by) this condition.

"It's incredible how two different people can have such different views on the same events," says Noujaim. It's very important to try to have an understanding of the other side, especially in the U.S., since our troops are everywhere, yet we don't have an understanding of the countries they are in, and what our tax dollars are doing in these foreign countries that they are in.

When asked about the difference between American coverage of the war and Al Jazeera's, which is far more bloody, she says, "People think that we [in America] don't show gruesome images on television. This is something those people [in Iraq] do. But this guy who saw Control Room--he was among an audience in Berkeley where there was this woman who complained that the images in the movie were so graphic that 'it's almost like a snuff film'--he came up to me afterwards and he showed me these images of bloated soldiers in Vietnam floating on a lake on the cover of Life magazine. This was an older guy, 75 or 80, and he was like, 'I don't know what these younger people's problem is with these images. This is war and this is what it looks like.'

"Then I thought, maybe it was the reactions from the Vietnam War, with the images that came back, that has made the present government very sensitive about the images they release. I mean, that was the general viewpoint in Al Jazeera, where they kept hearing that showing these images was radicalizing the Arab masses against the United States. But this isn't really the problem. The problem is that these images are going to come back to the United States and the U.S. population is going to start speaking out against the war. Images make it real."