A Molly Moment: A Molly Moment
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: July 2, 2004
Iraqi civilians injured by bombs. Wounded American soldiers.
Those are images that Americans typically don't see on the news.
Right now, however, they are images appearing in two different --
very different -- documentaries, each of which shows us
aspects of the war in Iraq rarely portrayed in mainstream media. One
is, of course, "Fahrenheit 9/11," the documentary by Michael Moore
that has the nation buzzing; the other is Jehane Noujaim's documentary
about Al-Jazeera journalists, "Control Room."
For Moore, the footage of the human cost of war is one piece of a
wide-ranging pastiche of images. Moore employs everything from the
serious footage of the wounded to pop culture references, from the
emotional story of Lila Lipscomb (who lost her son in Iraq) to his
own sarcastic voiceovers, all to further his goal of getting George W.
Bush out of office.
And while it's too soon to know whether or not he'll achieve that
ultimate goal at the polls, Moore has certainly already had amazing
success at the box office. "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the first documentary
ever to be the number one film at the box office its opening weekend.
It accomplished this feat by handily beating the number two film,
despite the fact that it opened on only a third of the screens as the
What's caused such a frenzy of interest? In a time when the
Democratic contender for next President is the oh-so-Presidential and
serious John Kerry, Moore provides a razzmatazz and fighting spirit
that lefties aren't seeing from the Democratic party. And, with
Howard Dean knocked out of the race after a selected media clip made
him look foolish, there's a bit of a zingy thrill seeing that happen
to the other side. Over, and over, and over.
But it's not only the clips that laugh at the Bush administration
that people are responding to. They're also responding to the quiet
moments, such as an eloquent memorial to the attack on the World Trade
Center -- a blank screen, with the sounds of the crash, followed
gradually by scenes of people reacting, shocked or crying, in the
streets. We see papers floating in the air, and posters of the
missing. And oh, the heartbreak is there again, so close.
Or the images of people injured in the war. Although they do not
last a long time on the screen, they're affecting to people who have
not seen these types of images for this war.
These same types of images play an important part in "Control
Room," a documentary about Al-Jazeera journalists which opened to much
less fanfare on May 21, 2004, in New York, and which has opened in
other theaters since then. Al-Jazeera has been criticized in the West
as being inflammatory for -- among other decisions -- showing graphic
footage of war victims. But, as one of the journalists explained in
"Control Room," their goal in showing the images was to "let people
understand that this is a war where people are dying. It's not a
clean war. It's a messy war."
That's a sentiment that I suspect Michael Moore would be
comfortable with, and indeed, the journalists of Al-Jazeera that we
see in "Control Room" seem as if they'd be at home in an American
journalism class. They do not deny that they have a viewpoint, but
they feel it's unavoidable, describing the word objectivity as "a
mirage." Samir Khader, an Al-Jazeera producer who is one of the main
characters in "Control Room," proudly described Al-Jazeera as
presenting "true journalism. The only true journalism in the world.
There are other interesting parallels with Moore's sentiments. At
one point, the American media is described as "hijacked" because it is
designed "to make the Americans feel that they're always under siege."
Moore, too, mocks the color-coded system of security alarms and
implies that they've been utilized more to keep people uneasy and
fearful than for genuine information about security.
I wonder, though, what Khader thinks of Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."
In "Control Room," there is a point where Khader berates one of his
staff for arranging an interview with an activist. Khader felt that
it was a bad -- and unworthy -- interview because the man so clearly
had an axe to grind. The staff member protested that the activist had
been speaking against his own country, clearly thinking that this was
merit enough to have him as a guest on the show. Khader tensely
explained that they wanted to book guests who were balanced, and could
talk about both sides of an issue.
Certainly director Jehane Noujaim found multifaceted characters for
her documentary. Of mixed Egyptian-American heritage, Noujaim went to
Qatar shortly before the outbreak of the war to observe how it would
be reported. While a variety of journalists appear on the screen, the
bulk of the time is taken up with Khader; Captain Josh Rushing, the
U.S. military press officer at CENTCOM; and Hassan Ibrahim, an
Al-Jazeera journalist. Each provides a fascinating complexity.
Khader, as noted, is proud of the work that he does at Al-Jazeera,
but he also hopes that someday his children can go to America.
Rushing is not presented as a closed-minded, just-following-orders
type, but instead a genuinely reflective person who both believes in
what he and the United States are doing and is open-minded to learning from others. He freely
admits that both Fox and Al-Jazeera are selective in the stories that
they run, because he knows what it is that they're not running. He
genuinely struggles to understand what Ibrahim tells him about how
images from the Israeli-Palestinian situation are inextricably bound
up in the Iraqi war, asking if the journalist would be willing to meet
with him later to help him understand more. And for his part, Ibrahim, despite his cheerful scorn at statements from the administration of the United
States, invites Rushing to come join him and his wife for dinner so
that they can talk further.
The complexity of characters in "Control Room" is not present in
"Fahrenheit 9/11." Moore has a specific agenda and mood he wants to
get across, and he has obviously engineered his documentary towards
that end. He himself is a constant presence -- if not on screen, then
by way of voiceover.
Because Noujaim is working not so much towards agenda as
observation, she can afford to allow her characters to be more
complex. In a way, "Control Room" appears as a window into this
world, allowing the viewer to see whatever passes in front of that
window. But, as her own movie makes clear, the choice of what stories
to show is itself an expression of viewpoint, even if a less blatant
one than Moore's editorializing.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Control Room" have many differences, in
terms of technique, viewpoint, style. Though they both use the same
type of unfamiliar and shocking footage of war injuries, the footage
is used for different purposes -- in "Fahrenheit 9/11," to indict the
actions of our government; in "Control Room," to better understand the
Iraqis and the Al-Jazeera journalists.
But both films are effective in raising questions about what has
happened in Iraq, and where we should go from here. Those are
questions to which no movie can provide an answer -- even Moore's
implied solution of a change in administration still only takes us so
far -- but, surprisingly, I found my best hope in words from the
cheerful cynic Hassan Ibrahim. When asked what could stop the United
States, he replied, "The United States is going to stop the United
States. I have absolute confidence in the United States Constitution,
and I have absolute confidence in the American people."
That confidence will be justified if the American public truly
engages in the vigorous debate that these two movies can inspire.
site for "Fahrenheit 9/11" | IMDb site for
Official site for
"Control Room" | IMDb
site for "Control Room"