Truth is a mosaic. Facts are the tiles that have to be pieced together, and it is only in standing back and looking at the whole that one can see the patterns.
This documentary by Jehane Noujaim tries to provide some of that perspective by letting us look at the Arab news network Al-Jazeera and its broadcasts on the war in Iraq.
They say that history is written by the victors. But maybe that is because victory is determined by the historians. What American politicians and broadcasters portray as a “mission accomplished” may be seen very differently by the other side. Both sides may watch the bombs being dropped, but we hear the crisply uniformed officers of Central Command (CentCom) recite statistics about what has been successfully achieved while the Arab world hears women crying about the inhumanity of the world’s greatest superpower murdering civilians.
In Noujaim’s film, form and content intersect as she provides an even-handed look at four key characters, letting them speak for themselves. The most vivid and compelling are Marine Lt. Josh Rushing and Sudanese Al-Jazeera correspondent Hassan Ibrahim. Rushing, liaison to the Arab journalists, is everything you would hope for in an American and particularly the representative of America to a skeptical culture. He may be naive at times, but he is always open-minded, curious, sincere, honorable, and genuinely committed not just to telling our story but to listening to the stories of others. Ibrahim is like the character Clark Gable used to play in all those WWII-era movies about the cynical journalists with the hearts of gold. He is patient, dedicated, and even optimistic, declaring his “absolute confidence in the U.S. Constitution.”
More compelling than any protestation of journalistic ethics is a producer’s fury at being given an “expert” guest who may have been on the “right” side, but was not credible enough to support it. And we see that other concerns transcend both journalism and politics as a cynical, even bitter Al-Jazeera producer tells us “If I’m offered a job with Fox I will take it, change the Arab nightmare into the American dream.” This longing for the individual opportunities in America is in stark contrast to the passionate hatred for the collective policies of America as a character says that “Tears are too easy. For me that was a crime that should be avenged.”
Americans watch the news of the war in Iraq on CNN and the broadcast networks and believe we are getting the real story. The Arab world watches news of the war on Al-Jazeera and believe they are getting the real story. This movie watches both and gives us a different real story, or maybe another piece that helps us understand how no attempt or pretense of objectivity can ever escape bias completely.
Some scenes have more power now than they did when the movie was made. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announces that “liars will be caught” as the movie shows us a part of the truth Americans were not fully told. And it is impossible not to feel a chill as President Bush says, “I expect our prisoner to be treated humanely just like we treat theirs humanely.”
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and graphic battle footage, including images of dead and wounded bodies and razed buildings that may be very upsetting to some viewers.
Families who see this movie should talk about how they get the news and what they do to ensure that they are getting the most complete and objective information possible. Noujaim used only a tiny fraction of the footage she shot. How did she shape the story? What do you think about the emphasis she gave to parts of the story like the translator’s reaction to the American politicians and the death of the Al-Jazeera reporter? What is the difference between reporting and propaganda? How does CNN compare to Fox? How do NBC, ABC, and CBS compare to PBS? To Al-Jazeera? How does television compare to newspapers? The internet? What can we do to make sure that we get our information from places that do more than reinforce our own perspectives? One character says he is representing his station but also representing his people. Is there a conflict there? If so, which commitment is more important?
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Noujaim’s previous film, Startup.com as well as the documentaries by Michael Moore (which make no pretence of objectivity).