- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - An insightful look at controversial news channel Al Jazeera during its coverage of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was widely applauded at its first screening before the Middle Eastern public, and its director is eyeing broader distribution in the region.

“Control Room,” shown recently at the Dubai International Film Festival, was filmed in the Doha, Qatar newsroom and at U.S. Central Command media headquarters in Qatar before and during the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and exposes the diverse perceptions among media and military in both places.

It concentrates on the candid views of three characters: Al Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader and journalist Hassan Ibrahim, and U.S. military spokesman Lt. Josh Rushing.

The latter has since left the Marine Corps.

At the very least, the film humanizes those working at the channel, which often finds itself in the line of critics’ fire.

Al Jazeera, watched by millions of Arab viewers, has been accused by Washington of bias and stoking anti-American sentiment but has also irked many governments in the Middle East for tackling taboo political and social issues.

“I felt I wasn’t getting another perspective or another side” of news in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion, director Jehane Noujaim told the audience after the screening late Tuesday.

“I was speaking to my parents in Cairo, who were getting another story,” said the U.S.-based Miss Noujaim, a Harvard graduate who grew up in Egypt. “I felt I had to go into the center where the war was being broadcast, which was Qatar.”

The film was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation, and made its Middle East premiere before film-industry figures at this month’s Cairo International Film Festival.

Produced by Rosadel Verala and Hani Salama, the project’s 200 hours of footage were edited to a riveting 1 hours.

“I’m not saying it’s the truth; it’s our truth,” Miss Noujaim said.

Less than halfway through Tuesday’s screening, a Kuwaiti member of the audience walked out in protest, saying as he left, “This is a bad film, only good for Saddam Hussein.”

Kuwait, which closed Al Jazeera’s office in 2002 for its stand against the emirate, was invaded by Saddam’s army in August 1990 and occupied for seven months before being liberated by a U.S.-led multinational coalition in the 1991 Gulf War.

Kuwait served as a main launchpad for last year’s Iraq invasion.

Another member of the audience said he felt “more angry and powerless” after watching the film, which provides an opportunity for an English-speaking audience to encounter another point of view.

“The film was not there to beg a reaction but to convey perceptions,” Mr. Ibrahim told the audience. “If it made you more angry, I’m very happy. … Why are you afraid of realizing the full gravity of the situation?”

Miss Noujaim said she has already been approached by a number of military personnel who returned from Iraq and encouraged her to show it to those being deployed there.

“They felt people are going to Iraq with little or no understanding,” she added, describing reactions so far to the film as “very inspiring.”

Miss Noujaim says she wants to take “Control Room” to Qatar for a public screening, although it remains to be seen where else in the region it will secure distribution.

Launched in November 1996, Al Jazeera won world fame for its exclusive reports during the U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan and for its interviews with Osama bin Laden.

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