May 21, 2004
The War's Dark Side: Filling in the Blanks
In "Control Room" (opening today in Manhattan), an intelligent and eloquent behind-the-scenes look at the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, we see civilian victims of a bombing in northern Iraq, their corpses lined up on the ground and piled in a truck. In "War Feels Like War" (on PBS in July), the camera follows international reporters not embedded with the military, and witnesses American soldiers being shot at by fedayeen in Baghdad. After the gunfire stops, a Polish journalist files a radio report that says, "It doesn't look good," adding that a Marine has told him "too many people still have weapons."
Both documentaries are by directors who bring foreign perspectives to material we're accustomed to hearing in the voices of Dan or Peter or Tom. Jehane Noujaim is an Egyptian-American whose comfort with both Arab and American cultures brings fluency and intellectual balance to "Control Room." The Spanish director Esteban Uyarra's "War Feels Like War" was originally made for British and Danish television. Both films assume a fly-on-the-wall stance, without narration, and cover the same period — a little over a year ago, just before and into the start of the war. It might seem that the Abu Ghraib revelations would make the films seem dated, but the opposite is true: the recent news strengthens the sense that alternative sources are a powerful way to expose the darkest side of war.
Far from denying national biases — journalism's usual defensive posture — "Control Room" embraces that concept and examines its impact on the news, peering into the Jazeera control room in Qatar and the nearby Coalition Media Center run by the United States military. While horrific physical battles are going on in Iraq, the film puts viewers in the middle of the swirling media battles, like the one about Al Jazeera showing the images of civilian corpses. At Al Jazeera, Hassan Ibrahim is a former BBC reporter, indignant and sardonic about his network's getting "grief from the Americans" for showing people killed by American bombs. At a news conference an American officer responds to reports of civilian deaths saying Saddam Hussein used civilians as shields. And we see Abdallah Schleifer — an American teaching in Cairo and a former NBC reporter — in a conversation with Lt. Josh Rushing, the thoughtful American press officer who is one of the film's central figures. Mr. Schleifer says that while it may be true that civilians were human shields, without photographic evidence of that misuse the statement has little impact.
Lieutenant Rushing, who has a brilliant future as a spinner if he wants it, is smart enough to acknowledge the other side's views and then move beyond them. One of the film's most illuminating statements is his: "When I watch Al Jazeera, I can tell what they're showing and then I can tell what they're not showing by choice. Same thing when I watch Fox on the other end of the spectrum." O.K., but how are we supposed to know what's missing? Filling in the blanks is exactly what most TV viewers cannot easily do.
"Control Room" offers enough glimpses of what we don't know to induce paranoia in even the best-informed viewers. The film captures immense hostility toward American actions in Iraq, anger that existed a year ago but is just now truly registering here. And Lieutenant Rushing says that "no American connects the Palestinian issue" with the war in Iraq, but that everyone he has met in the Arab world sees them as "the exact same thing" — an eye-opening observation for most people.
Unlike the extraordinary "Control Room," the straightforward "War Feels Like War" is stronger in substance than in artistry. It begins in Kuwait City, where unembedded journalists are based, unable to enter Iraq. They include the writer P. J. O'Rourke, reporting for ABC Radio News, as well as journalists from Denmark, Norway and Poland. Although it focuses on the reporters, the documentary is most revealing when it captures the fighting that some of them witness after they manage to cross the border.
We are placed in amazing close-up as American soldiers search for a sniper on the streets of Baghdad. The soldiers line up suspects on the ground, hands tied behind them, faces in the dust; one puts a boot on a suspect's neck. The film doesn't present easy or polemical answers: the Americans' danger is real and so is their harsh treatment of the Iraqis. And it takes nothing away from embedded reporters to appreciate the lack of constraint in these unattached journalists' stories.
These films might leave viewers wondering what direction American war coverage will take, now that there are at least a few signs of change. CBS, after all, showed the first Abu Ghraib photos on "60 Minutes II." Anchors seem less reverential than they were in the first "shock and awe" days of the war; this week when Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, testified before Congress about the future of American troops in Iraq, Peter Jennings introduced the report by saying, "Many of the administration's plans are not very clear."
American news now routinely offers sound bites from Arab television to show how we are being perceived — but that is usually the nationalistic subtext, how they see us. These occasional, partial views don't enhance our understanding much.
The most valuable, accessible supplement to the hermetic American view is BBC World News. Because it broadcasts to English-language countries outside Britain, by definition its half-hour newscasts offer a more international range of stories. This week it paid far more attention to the election in India and focused on the Israeli raids in Gaza days earlier than American news did. And its accounts are more pointed. On Tuesday, reporting that three Iraqi employees of Reuters had accused members of the United States military of abuse, the BBC correspondent called the charge "particularly damaging" on the eve of the first Abu Ghraib court-martial, "which the Americans hope will show to the world that they are taking allegations of abuse seriously. The big question now is: can the U.S. military be seen to be properly investigating itself?"
Otherwise, viewers who search for news from abroad in English will find themselves on a scavenger hunt. WNYE in New York City (the channel run by the Board of Education) offers foreign news programs nightly, including complete newscasts from Italy, Poland, Greece and Germany, but only those from Russia and France are subtitled. "Vesti" is the evening newscast from RTR, the Russian government-sponsored channel; you really need a Kremlinologist to see what's missing there.
"Le Journal," the evening newscast from France 2, has a nonjudgmental tone but sometimes offers a broader view of the war than American news. Reporting on the Arab and American reactions to the beheading of Nicholas Berg — several Iraqis said that for a Muslim, death was nothing next to the Abu Ghraib sexual abuse — the reporter concluded, "Two apparently unreconcilable logics are at a standoff" (as the stilted subtitles translated it). Both programs devote much time to their domestic news and function best as news-from-home for expatriates or language lessons.
But even if alternative views remain hard to find, we still have history and hindsight, moving at warp speed and adding new resonance to films like "Control Room." There,
Where to Watch
The films and television news programs in Caryn James's Critic's Notebook article.
"CONTROL ROOM" opens today at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village, and nationally through June and July. Film Forum information: (212) 727-8110.
"WAR FEELS LIKE WAR," to be shown on July 6 as part of the "P.O.V." series on PBS (check local listings).
"BBC WORLD NEWS" is shown on the BBC America channel four times a day and on many PBS stations (check local listings).
"VESTI: RUSSIAN NEWS" and "LE JOURNAL," from France, are shown with English subtitles. Nationally, they are most often carried on cable or satellite (check local listings). In New York "Vesti" is shown at 6 p.m. and "Le Journal" at 7 p.m. weekdays on WNYE.