Control Room gives us an account of the first 6 weeks of the war in Iraq from the inside of Al Jazeera, the satellite news network based in Qatar and watched by millions in the Arab world. The Rail’s Mridu Chandra recently engaged award-winning documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (co-director of Startup.com) in a conversation about the multitude of perspectives on the war in Iraq.
Mridu Chandra (Rail): You went to Qatar to shoot this film about a month before the war started, when a lot of us were protesting the war and seeking new sources of information to understand what was about to happen. It was probably the first time a lot of us ever even heard of Al Jazeera. Was making this film your own personal act of protesting the U.S. war in Iraq?
Jehane Noujaim: It wasn’t necessarily a protest against the war because the moment I went back to Egypt, I met Iraqi exiles and they supported the U.S. going in to remove Saddam. I didn’t feel educated enough to go out there and protest; all I could say is that violence shouldn’t be the way to remove a leader, that violence produces more violence.
I guess the impetus was really that I didn’t want to watch the war from my living room and be throwing things at the TV screen. I definitely wasn’t for the war, but to make a film about the politics of war versus no war, like something Michael Moore would do, it’s something you make if you really feel sure about all those questions. I would say it was a way to find out what was going on for myself, and I wanted to be around people who are very motivated to think about it.
Rail: I imagine reporters at Al Jazeera would definitely be motivated to think about it. But how was Al Jazeera going to help you figure it all out? They were declared enemy propagandists by the U.S., and lots of Arab leaders banned it.
Noujaim: Yeah, but if they’re hated by everybody, there has to be something interesting going on there. The people who go to Qatar, leaving state-run journalism in countries like Jordan and Sudan, to live in a desert in the middle of nowhere… you have to think that these people will be like revolutionaries. I was inspired by these people who are trying to create an understanding on both sides. I’ve spent my whole life trying to bring the two worlds together. Living back and forth between Egypt and the U.S., I was always looking at what one side thinks and then what the other side thinks. There were very different stories being told about the same subject. We forget how perspective means everything. Where you stand, I mean literally stand, means everything. I wanted to make a film about this issue of perspective.
Rail: Interestingly enough, you didn’t end up taking sides with Al Jazeera. You show Lt. Josh Rushing, who is the U.S. military’s press officer also based in Qatar, as a complex character. He speaks about being disgusted when he saw Al Jazeera’s controversial first broadcast of U.S. POWs, until he remembered that he had seen similarly graphic images of Iraqi soldiers killed the night before and hadn’t felt disgusted.
Noujaim: When I was introduced to Lt. Rushing, he basically blasted every stereotype I had about the military. I thought that they wouldn’t be able to talk about how they felt about what was going on. I was very intrigued by him. I knew he would be challenged constantly because his job was to explain the U.S. presence in Iraq to people that were very hostile to it. He said to me, "I wouldn’t be able to do this job if I didn’t really truly believe in what I was doing." And I believed him when he said that. I came to respect him for engaging the other side. He didn’t give flat answers. He talked to Al Jazeera journalists for hours. He didn’t have to do that—he could have given them the military line that he had for that day.
Rail: So how did it all come together as a film?
Noujaim: You don’t know when you are starting a doc project whether it is ever going to get funded, seen, if you are going to get a story, if you will find interesting characters…. So you better be doing something that interests you and puts you around people who you want to be around.
Most people who worked on the film were inexperienced people. It was a funding decision because we had no funding. A close friend of mine who is a great photographer offered to come to Qatar to come help me shoot the film. I was dating him at the time, so that helped. Like I said, you have to have an interesting time making the film, you have to go with somebody who you trust has a similar vision. You also have to just enjoy waiting with them. There was so much waiting involved. We sat in the guards’ office for a week before getting into Al Jazeera. We finished shooting after 6 weeks. And then I went back to Egypt to edit it.
Rail: There are a LOT of editors listed in the credits of the film. Did you edit it in Egypt to remain true to a certain perspective or mindset that you wanted to have in the film?
Noujaim: It’s interesting how we got it edited. It was a conscious decision to do it in Egypt, because it was a lot cheaper, and I could afford having everybody live there. We lived and worked in my family’s house in the Sinai, which is on the beach. It was the only way to convince a couple of interns to come work through the summer and work for free.
Basically, we slept upstairs and worked downstairs. We set up an editing facility with 6 computers. We learned Final Cut Pro, and each of us took a character. I took Hassan Ibrahim. And it was nice, especially with such a difficult and emotional subject, to be able to go outside and see the moon and take a swim; it made a huge difference.
There were other reasons to stay in Egypt. If I needed to shoot anything more, it was close to Qatar, and I wanted to use Arabic music. I had to go find the musicians and see them perform… All these facilities existed in Egypt. But I also edited in the U.S., and that helped give the film its final perspective, which shows complexity on both sides.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film at the recent Full Frame Documentary Festival, Control Room recently opened at the Film Forum in New York and will be released nationally in June.
Mridu Chandra is a filmmaker and writer living in New York.