Down With Docs, or I'll Take Out-Of-Control Room

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This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences® has declined to nominate Werner Herzog's masterful Grizzly Man in the best documentary category, a move buffs of the documentary snub tradition will recognize and deplore. Grizzly Man joins such nonfiction Havishams as Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line, and Fahrenheit 9/11, films that broke out of the documentary ghetto to achieve critical acclaim, audience enthusiasm, and viewer interest that will undoubtedly last long after their respective years' winners have been forgotten. This is always a minor Oscar scandal, treated as evidence that the Academy just doesn't give documentaries the attention they deserve. But while I can't countenance giving awards to inferior products, I have to admit that in one way Oscar is right: Documentaries really don't deserve as much attention or consideration as fictional narrative movies. And not just because contemporary docs are shot as tv shows and don't really need to be seen in a theater, but because the documentary form can't help being propaganda.

I say this not after having seen a particularly bad doc but after having seen a particularly good one—Jehane Noujaim's 2004 Control Room, the celebrated look at al Jazeera producers during the invasion of Iraq. It's a very good movie, but like Noujaim's previous effort Startup.com, what makes it interesting is not the story but the way reality keeps running away from Noujaim's effort to frame it. As I argued then, Startup.com was a fascinating look at the dotcom boom by somebody who thought the most important thing was whether her Harvard roommate succeeded with his ill-conceived startup company. In one obvious respect, the story turned out differently than planned: Noujaim says in interviews that she was expecting to film a great American success story, but GovWorks ended up going down in flames. But the real fiction was in framing the story this way in the first place: To treat the internet business explosion as another story of two guys and their dream (a very familiar story at the time) is like thinking the most important thing about the California gold rush was whether any particular forty-niner struck it rich.

So it is with Control Room. The dilemma is whether the alternative viewpoint of al Jazeera will actually make a dent in the rush toward war (it doesn't), and the main psychological movement is that of Josh Rushing, the Marine press officer who, according to countless fan testimonials and glowing reviews, becomes progressively less gung ho and more open to the Arab perspective as the film proceeds. This is the way audiences have read the film, and I think it's fair to say this is the way Noujaim, despite some nuance (such as including another DoD flack who remains ramrod-stiff from start to finish) tells the story.

What goes unnoticed is the much more obvious story, of how a group of reasonable, intelligent, educated people gradually come to drink the Kool-Aid of Arab nationalism. Most of the Jazeera personnel here could plausibly be described as Arab liberals, and they're Arab liberals of a type I know very well: the kind who love Americans and the American way so much that they can never, ever, ever find a good word to say about us.

Thus we get endless finely articulated observations about how the stupid, naive American galoots, who think the whole world is a Rambo movie, are completely clueless about everything and unaware of what havoc, destruction, and pain they are perpetually bringing to the people of the world. But really, they're only saying this because they love us. Most reviews have picked out Jazeera producer Samir Khader's comment that he would take a job with Fox News "instantly" as the movie's tell. (See? Bush's cowboy brutality has alienated even this man, a pro-American moderate who wishes he lived in New York!) But I see it as Khader's to-be-sure statement, a quick innoculation before he can get back to telling us how dumb we are for believing this big media fraud.

This is where the movie's real psychological movement comes in, and if you remember Jazeera's wartime coverage it's especially striking. What started out as the best coverage of the war (and in some respects remained so until Jazeera's reporters had to leave Iraq under tremendous pressure), became visibly more hysterical, shrill, and Baghdad-Bobishly pro-Saddam as the invasion unfolded. Control Room shows how that happened from the other end of the camera. I don't want to downplay their reasons for this shift: The climax came when Jazeera reporter Tarek Ayoub was killed in an airstrike that there's little reason to believe was not intentional. And there were enough surprising setbacks for the Americans and moments of resistance by the Iraqis to explain the Jazeera narrative of an invasion turning into a disaster (and as I said at the time, they did a very good job of telling the story that way).

What Control Room shows is how the network ended up pushing a version of the invasion that was even less accurate than the one being pushed by the American military (though probably more accurate than the one on American news networks). First the British can't be in Basra because there hasn't been any footage out of Basra. Then the Americans can't have captured any bridges across the Tigris because there are no bridges across the Tigris. Then they can't be at the Baghdad airport because there's no footage of the airport. Then when there is footage of the airport it can't be real. Finally the statue of Saddam gets pulled down in Fardos Square, but that's got to be just a hoax: Only a bunch of tv-swilling American fatheads could believe that means anything*. The capper comes at the end, when Khader delivers a speech about how expertly the Americans managed the media message. Oh yeah? Then how come American public opinion was hardly better than evenly divided at the time, and has become more antiwar ever since? Why were there millions of protesters in the streets of the major western cities before and during the invasion? Why did the majority of the world's population view the Americans as the bad guys then, and why do they gloat over our setbacks in Iraq now? If that's media mastery I'd hate to see what happens when things really go south.

The DVD of Control Room contains a self-deconstructing extra: Rushing's commentary track, which combines insights, extra information, and blazing glimpses of the obvious to subtly undermine the movie's message (though the scrupulous Rushing seems to like the film and the filmmakers). "I find it interesting that most of these people at Al Jazeera are not Iraqi," he says at one point, "and yet they all feel so much hurt and disappointment that Baghdad has fallen." Describing a much-repeated comment about the subjectivity of all things by Joanne Tucker, former manager of aljazeera.net, Rushing notes "This is an astounding point she's making: that she is making no attempt to be objective." (He also alludes to an episode wherein Tucker fired a reporter, apparently because he had talked to Rushing.) When the movie presents a press-briefing snafu over the Axis of Evil playing cards (You may recall that Brigadier General Vincent K. Brooks announced the issuing of the cards, but failed to provide packs for reporters to examine after the press conference) as a straightforward case of reporters getting stonewalled by the Pentagon, Rushing chimes in: "An interesting commentary on the media is that there were people dying this day, there was a war being fought this day, and the lead story of the day was that these guys didn't get these novelty cards."

Although the movie doesn't invite a counter-reading like the one Rushing partially provides, I suppose it does leave itself open to other interpretations. The trick is that nobody interpreted it in any way other than the way it was intended. Every single person who has recommended Control Room to me, every rave review that I've read, virtually all of the overwhelmingly positive user comments at IMDB (sample comment: "Rumsfeld's 'truth' may come more from the beleaguered Arab network than the carefully controlled coalition") have taken Control Room completely at face value.

And this, after a long detour, gets me back to why I think documentaries are all propaganda. They're not propaganda because Michael Moore is an ideologue, nor because the anti-Michael Moore guy is a counter-ideologue. They're propaganda because they're made for people who take all images literally, the kind of people who brag that they only read non-fiction. The only arguments that ever take place over docs are about how the makers were or were not biased in their presentation of facts, and if any documentary questions the whole nature of the narrative (as Herzog does from time to time with his mockumentaries), nobody knows what to do with it. No wonder Oscar has no regard for documentaries: They're movies for people who don't like movies.

* To be fair, the Jazeera staff had an extra reason to be skeptical of the statue story. Ayoub had been killed the day before, and the network's correspondents had left Iraq, so they had nobody on the ground in Fardos square. The movie subtly but insistently encourages the view that the Americans set it up that way.

Werner Herzog supposedly rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck the other day, but if you read the story closely it sounds like all he really did was direct Phoenix's post-crash performance.

NEXT: Attn, DC Reasonoids: Happy Hour, Sun. Feb. 12; Conference on Tues., Feb. 14

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27 responses to “Down With Docs, or I'll Take Out-Of-Control Room

  1. Wasn’t the snub of “9/11 F” based on the fact that Moore applied for Best Picture category rather than documentary? Was this the case for any of the other famous snubs? It would seem that a doc could only be properly snubbed if its makers applied for the Best Doc category.

  2. Here is my favorite documentary I’ve seen so far this year (1Mb):
    http://www.pwasoh.com/media/catattack/catfight.mov

  3. Tim: You forgot Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 Robert Crumb documentary in your list of famous snubs.

  4. I don’t know how Comcast does things nationwide, but where I am Control Room is on Comcast’s “On Demand” for free until March 15.

    I saw it in the theaters when it came out. I tried watching it again but I couldn’t get through it this time. In my opinion Tim pretty much hit the mark in his review of it.

    Anyway, if you have Comcast you have a chance to watch it “free”, albeit without the DVD extras.

  5. A few documentaries for people who don’t always take images literally — or at least keep themselves open to multiple interpretations:

    F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973)
    Land Without Bread (Luis Bunuel, 1933)
    Chicken Real (Les Blank, 1970)
    Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1982)
    Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978)
    Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
    Glen or Glenda (Ed Wood, 1953)

  6. Werner Herzog’s masterful Grizzly Man

    You say masterful, I say masterly.

    I happened to see that Herzog documentary a week or two ago on some cable nature channel — I found the footage of the bears the guy captured to be amazing sometimes, but man oh man did he ever lose perspective about those bears.

    There was a part at the end where Herzog is talking about the cold, bored look of the bear everyone seems to think killed the Grizzly guy, but if you ask me he didn’t look much different from any of the other bears in the documentary. I’d say that until they find some friendly psychic grizzly bear who speaks English, I’m not going anywhere near those things.

    Generally I’m afraid of anything with sharper teeth than mine, of course.

  7. The Academy also snubbed Bum Fights.

  8. People in Iraq during the war noting that Americans are behaving like dangerous, well intentioned galoots is not evidence of “drinking the Kool Aid of Arab nationalism.” It’s evidence of people disliking what they see Americans doing, and probably would have looked very much the same if the events took place in southeast Asia or, South America, or central Africa.

    It is very interesting that Tim would read such a reaction primarily as an expression of Arab Nationalism, though.

    And, as it turns our, the suspicion that the toppling of the statue turns out to have been corrrect, and Tim’s reaction to that suspcion turns our to have been wrong.

  9. And, as it turns our, the suspicion that the toppling of the statue turns out to have been corrrect, and Tim’s reaction to that suspcion turns our to have been wrong.

    Pardon?

  10. Is “March of the Penguins” propaganda? For whom? The Birds Wearing Tuxes Lobby? Linux computing? Evolutionists? Creationists? Ecofreaks?

  11. Although the movie doesn’t invite a counter-reading like the one Rushing partially provides, I suppose it does leave itself open to other interpretations.

    I saw this in the theater, and although I bought the DVD and lent it out extensively, I hadn’t looked at it again until just now. …I just rewatched it after reading Cavanaugh’s post. …and the film can be viewed, rather, it seems intended as a study in subjectivity.

    All the while, the people in the film, most of them anyway, struggle for objectivity. The observer, watching the film, struggles for objectivity too. …but the facts are blurry through a lens hundreds of miles away.

    Yes, the toppling of the statue appears to have been staged. …but I think we all suspected that. I remember people, on this very board, commenting about the remarkably sudden availability of American flags, etc. Does that mean the people of Baghdad weren’t ecstatic to see Saddam fall? If they were, does that mean they were glad to have been bombed, occupied, etc.?

    Some of the people in the film seemed to want the Republican Guard to make a good showing for themselves around the square, just out of some sense of Arab pride. …at least, that’s the way it seemed to me, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

    Did we specifically target the reporters around that square? Were there shots being fired from the Al Jazeera building in Baghdad? I think I remember someone suggesting, at the time, that people in or on the building(s) were spotting for the other side? Is that possible? Is it true? It’s hard to get a handle on people’s motives.

    I think people react to the film, in part, because they haven’t seen Al Jazeera in action before, but, quite frankly, I think the film has a big impact because it’s the first time many of those who see it, see Arabs acting like regular, ordinary people. …rather than seeing them wailing or being arrested or dying… And hearing what appear to be everyday Arabs discuss the actions of the United States in such terms is very disconcerting, I’m sure, to those of us with a limited perspective.

  12. Rich Ard: I think Joe (along with Control Room itself) is referring to allegations that the US military stage-managed the toppling of the statue, partly by planning it ahead of time with the Iraqis who toppled it and partly by setting up cameras so that the square looked a lot more crowded than it was.

  13. Good points, Ken. I’ll admit that being around Arabs acting like regular ordinary people and discussing the actions of the United States doesn’t have the novelty effect for me it may have for others, and that many of the arguments engaged in the film are ones I’ve gotten a little tired of hearing (cue Matthew Hogan joining in to point out that Young and Freund and I spend all our time drinking champagne out of glass slippers with the Beiruti elite rather than keeping it street with Hogan and his homies).

    Since many people read my writeup of Startup.com as being a pan, let me avoid that mistake here: I highly recommend Control Room and I suggest everybody check it out.

  14. “People in Iraq during the war noting that Americans are behaving like dangerous, well intentioned galoots”

    Did I miss something? or did joe? (again)
    Did you pull this out of your ass or what?

  15. Is “March of the Penguins” propaganda? For whom? The Birds Wearing Tuxes Lobby? Linux computing? Evolutionists? Creationists? Ecofreaks?

    Did you see any of the coverage of March of the Penguins? Conservatives decided it was an example of the importance of family values; liberals said it proved the natural precedent for gay rights. Everybody treated that movie as propaganda for their side in a way they never would have if it were a Chilly Willy film that made no claims to telling a true story.

    I suppose it’s intriguing that various sides could claim it as their own propaganda, but it’s more telling that nobody read it as just another movie whose themes and points are as manufactured as the themes and points in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was a true example from nature, and all you could do was assess the facts therein.

  16. Tim, I resent your casual interpretation of “March of the Penguins.”

    Because of that inspirational look at family behavior, I have, for the last six months, been premasticating and otherwise predigesting my son’s food. I kicked the 12 year old out (it’s time for him to feed on his own, after all) and have left my wife so that I can mate with someone new this year.

    I’m going to watch a documentary on bonobos tomorrow, so we’ll just have to see how that works out.

  17. Ok, I finally watched it again. This time I was struck by the fact that the folks at al jazeera were shocked that the Iraqis weren’t fighting the Americans in Baghdad. They had tons of news briefings from the US that the US was rapidly advancing towards Baghdad, and they also broadcast clear propaganda from Iraq, as shown in the documentary. They apparantly did not believe it was propaganda, and thus were shocked as were apparantly all Arabs. Thus essentially proving the US point that they were a shill for Saddam Hussein’s regime. To be fair though, they seem to have thought they were being more or less objective, and the reason they were a tool of Saddam was merely they were naive fools.

    Anyway, that’s how I saw it, now that I’ve seen it again. Of course, Rumsfeld comes off like the buffoon that he is as well.

  18. Tim, your main argument pretty much captures the complete incompatibility of Errol Morris’ approach to documentary filmmaking with a documentary film Academy Award. His win for _Fog of War_ would reflect the fact that it could, much more easily than Morris’ other films, be categorized as propaganda. (I cannot imagine how confounding _Mr. Death_ must have been for them.)

    But you should also note that your argument applies to fiction films as well. Because its really just an argument about how much importance is attached to films with a clear authoritative structure as opposed to those “modest” films that more open to spontaneity and ambiguity. This is just a variant of Manny Farber’s “white elephant vs. termite art” argument, that old hoary chestnut of film criticism.

    I think the effect just feels amplified with respect to documentaries — i.e. the sensitivity about the “documentary snub” — because documentary structure has been ossified for so long that any docs that do interrogate their own structure really stand out to film critics and thereby receive plenty of critical attention. That’s why, say, I think the _Roger & Me_ snub (viewable, at the time, as a snub of a _critics favorite_) rankles more than the _F:9/11_ snub (as a snub of a _financial juggernaut_) — because only a critic is really going to be rankled in the first place.

    Anon

  19. Everybody treated that movie as propaganda for their side in a way they never would have if it were a Chilly Willy film that made no claims to telling a true story.

    Hahaha. Yeah, because nobody treated The Passion of the Christ as propaganda. Or Brokeback Mountain. Or Munich. Or Good Night, and Good Luck. Or Philadelphia. Or . . .

  20. I have always been a fan of documentaries. I don’t mind it being well produced, entertaining, or even a vehicle for the film makers point of view. For instance, I am strongly opposed to the politics of Ken Burns. As hard as he tries to make me feel guilty for being born with pale skin to upper-middle-class parents, I still don’t. Never the less, I love his stuff. He really does his homework, and presents the material brilliantly. I hear his progressive message loud and clear, and I reject it, and I become fascinated with and learn loads about stuff I didn’t know.

    On the other hand, Moore and Spurlack don’t make the cut. These guys are too willing to twist and contort the facts. The stretch and bend things so far they break. The fact that “Bowling for Columbine” was accepted as a documentary is an insult to the genre. Proclaiming it the “Best” is only one of countless data points establishing the Academy’s judgement as divorced from the merits of a given work.

    I second happyjuggler’s observation. Control Room had my attention and even inspired me to question my assumptions, until the fall of Baghdad. Seeing the whole team sitting there slack-jawed and amazed that the world’s mightiest army could stroll down main street was enough to convince me that anything these people said could be safely dismissed. The actually expected the Republican Guard to repel the US military, and were genuinely shocked with disappointment that the elite group would even consider anything other than pep-rally martyrdom.

  21. Rich Ard,

    Some grammatical mangling there. What I was trying to say is that the people who suspected the statue toppling scene was staged turned out to be correct. And those who considered that suspicion unwarranted turned out to have been incorrect.

    Finkelstein, I pulled that language from the post, which reads, “Thus we get endless finely articulated observations about how the stupid, naive American galoots, who think the whole world is a Rambo movie, are completely clueless about everything and unaware of what havoc, destruction, and pain they are perpetually bringing to the people of the world.”

    Read harder.

  22. Tim, you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post. Anyone whose biggest takeaway from the movie is that al Jazeera were bravely reporting the excesses of US galoots is a hack and/or didn’t actually see the film.

    The most enduring moments from the film for me:

    1. The attractive female employee who was incredulous and nearly in tears when there was no doubt that US soldiers were in Baghdad. “Where are the Republican Guard???!!!” I almost expected her to pull a Marta Goebbels and swallow a cyanide pill while saying “I don’t want to live in a world without Ba’athism”.

    2. The aJ reporters seeing a conspiracy behind everything when bureaucratic incompetence on the part of the military provides a more likely explanation.

    3. The aJ producer getting furious with an underling for conducting a satellite interview with a raving left-wing nutcase. He knew that the interview was useless for presenting the anti-US position.

    The obligatory “I’m not saying Saddam is a good man” before repeating Iraqi propaganda as if it were the true story made me almost, ALMOST, think that the airstrike that killed Ayoub was a legitimate attack on an enemy asset.

  23. peter Bagge,
    Right you are. A friend of mine recommended ‘Crumb’ a few years ago. I just got around to watching it this past year. I was wide-eyed and hypnotized throughout the whole thing. Leaves you wanting more.

  24. The climax came when Jazeera reporter Tarek Ayoub was killed in an airstrike that there’s little reason to believe was not intentional.

    Can somebody enlighten me? When did our reason to believe this was an accident become so little? Have there been any revelations that I am not aware of?

    Is there some report that indicates a strike was intentionally called on the reporter?

    Or Tim, do you mean “There’s little reason FOR ME to believe was not intentional.”

    Or have I once again become confused by the use of double negatives?

  25. Seeing the whole team sitting there slack-jawed and amazed that the world’s mightiest army could stroll down main street was enough to convince me that anything these people said could be safely dismissed.

    i think that’s too easy, mr warren. they say a lot that should be taken seriously, if not at face value. the point of watching documentaries, it seems to me, shouldn’t be to find a moment which allows you to write off the entire exercize guiltlessly and go back to what you had been thinking all along — it should be to begin to understand how many flavors of truth there are in a subjective world of human interpretation, each as valid (or rather, invalid) as the other.

    i agree largely with what mr cavanaugh said — though his objectivity too, along with all of ours, is under question as well considering that he can reel off “What goes unnoticed is the much more obvious story, of how a group of reasonable, intelligent, educated people gradually come to drink the Kool-Aid of Arab nationalism” as though nationalism was something only arabs and silly people go giddy over when it underpins the entire american popular experience, including perhaps his own — but “control room” is also a sort of gateway for understanding why and how intelligent, peaceful and liberal people have come to hate the united states as honestly and rationally as many have come to love it.

  26. Dr. K.
    My fave moments from Control Room that I can remember (I saw it at it’s release some time ago)
    1. The Arab guy telling Josh that, if he were a woman, he would be in love with him and his noticable embarassment. Funny.
    2. The part at the beginning when the reporter said that it might be a good idea to stop blaming Israel every time a muslim does something stupid.
    3. The BBC guy saying that the Al-Jazeera guys know where to get the good food in town.
    4. Their palpable emnbarassment at how quickly Baghdad fell.

    It was a great documentary, but I didn’t think it was too much better than some of the episodes of Frontline I have seen.

    It certainly doesn’t touch Crumb which completely blew me away. I gotta agree with Peter on that one. I love how Terry carried over some of Crumb’s quirks into Steve Buscemi’s role in Ghost World. It was as if Crumb was too great of a character to use only once.

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