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Saturday, May 25

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Control Room
Directed by Jehane Noujaim.

"We expect them to be treated humanely, just like we will treat any prisoners of theirs that we capture humanely," George W. Bush says at one point in Control Room, a new documentary by Harvard educated Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim (, released on June 11th. In the wake of the recent fiasco surrounding the American treatment of Iraqi POWs at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, which came to light well after the events depicted in this film (shot in early 2003), this statement has retroactively become one of the more provocative sound bites in the film.

Similarly, all the coverage of our troops' — as well as some allied troops, it appears — treatment of Iraqi POWs makes the fuss that was made about Al Jazeera's admittedly questionable decision to show footage of American POWs (which is covered in Control Room) even more interesting.

But for me, the most intriguing aspect of Control Room was the glimpse into Al Jazeera's decision-making process: what they consider newsworthy and why. The 40 million viewer strong network has been criticized by the US for fostering anti-American sentiment (by showing the results of US military actions in Iraq), even called "the mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden."

As recently as an April 8 news conference (not part of the film), Donald Rumsfeld has said, "Its disgraceful what that station is doing. They are simply lying." Yet it has also been accused by Hussein's former regime of broadcasting American propaganda and also been banned in several Arab countries for criticizing their regimes. Clearly, theirs is not a one-note agenda.

"Is Al Jazeera capable of being objective?" Samir Khader, an Al Jazeera producer, rhetorically asks at one point. "Are any US journalists objective about the war? This word 'objectivity' is almost a mirage."

In Control Room, America is represented mainly by Lt. Josh Rushing, press officer for CentCom (Central Command), the media/propaganda dissemination center for the war in Iraq, where Al Jazeera and all major news networks have offices. He is intelligent and articulate, but at first he spouts the party line as sincerely as anyone. As the film progresses, though, he seems to have a bit of a turnabout.

"The night [Al Jazeera] showed the POWs and dead soldiers ... was powerful, because Americans won't show those kinds of images. It made me sick to my stomach," Rushing said. The previous night, he had seen Al Jazeera broadcast images of Iraqis killed by an American bombing. "It upset me on a profound level that I wasn't bothered as much the night before. It makes me hate war."

(Since the events in Control Room, Lt. Rushing has been promoted to Captain and transferred out of active duty. According to, he was ordered not to comment on the film, which prompted him to resign from the Marines after 14 years of service.)

While I had seen little of the footage shown on Al Jazeera (a golden Al Jazeera flame at the bottom right of the screen clues you in to which parts were broadcast on the news network), I've never pretended, like much of this country, that watching TV news is in any way a reliable, accurate source of information about the world around me. I am bright enough to realize that when even "precision" bombs are dropped, innocent people will often be hurt, regardless of how many times CNN showed the same clip of one bomb hitting a test target during the first Gulf War.

So while the images that we see in Control Room are inarguably disturbing and affecting, even sickening at times, I can hardly consider them to be shocking. This, as well as most of the insights mentioned by other reviewers in regards to Control Room, is nothing terribly new to anyone who bothers to question the jingoistic poison piped into our homes on a daily basis.

But even if Control Room doesn't tell you anything shocking and new about the war in Iraq, it will show you something you don't see often on American television: intelligent, articulate human beings lamenting the way of the world. That alone was more than worth the price of admission.

After showing us footage of a child moaning on a cot, an apparent bombing victim, Al Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim, a former BBC reporter who is featured prominently in the film, "Rumsfeld called this 'incitement.' I call it true journalism. The only true journalism in the world."

Control Room is now playing at the Landmark Century.

City of God
Directed by Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles.
Starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, and Douglas Silva.

Films like City of God are hard to recommend. In its company, I would include Amores Perros and Requiem for a Dream: they are brutal, heart-wrenching movies to watch, let alone enjoy, though undeniably well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed.

City of God, a 2004 Academy Award nominee for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography, is the "based on a true story" tale of an aspiring photographer, Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues), centering largely his relationship with Little Zé (the riveting Leandro Firmino da Hora), a demented childhood acquaintance who becomes a psychopathic crime lord of a slum outside of Rio de Janeiro.

How close to the truth City of God is, I can't say, but ultimately, it doesn't really matter: as a film, the story works. Thanks in very large part to a Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's obvious rapport with their cast of non-professional actors, it feels real -- occasionally so real that it's painful to watch the events unfold on screen, perhaps most vividly in a haunting scene where a young boy is given a gun by Little Zé and instructed to shoot one of the two "Runts" in front of him.

At 130 minutes, City of God only occasionally feels a bit slow-going; most of the side-steps the film takes are welcome and provide a strong context for the main thrust of the story. Once the plot takes over in full force (you'll recognize when it has immediately), it won't let go until long after the movie has ended, but whether the reward of the film outweighs the difficult journey it takes you through is, I think, ultimately a matter of whether you enjoy these sorts of physically and emotionally draining, depressing movies -- and generally speaking, I don't, but the directors, and some breathtaking work by a remarkable ensemble cast, make it a vivid if occasionally harrowing experience that only gets more rewarding upon reflection, and that's pretty difficult to argue with.

City of God is newly available this month on DVD through Netflix and video stores everywhere. The film is shown in a widescreen anamorphic tranfer. The disc's only special feature is a 56-minute documentary from the late '90s, News from a Personal War, about the real-life City of God.

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miss ellen / July 7, 2004 10:57 AM

finally got around to watching city of god this past weekend. it was every bit as heartbreaking as you describe, although i found it to be much harder to process than amores perros. i really enjoyed the transformation & subsequent tragedy surrounding the character bené, lil zé's right-hand man....."i'm a playboy now!"

some of the scenes are incredible to watch, especially the chicken scene, the disco party, and the flashback to the motel scene. disturbing doesn't quite do it justice.

Vit / July 8, 2004 9:41 AM

I watched "city of god" not to long after spending two weeks in sao paulo, I couldn't speak for about an hour after the film (especially after seeing the reality of the favelas first hand).


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