When President George Bush declared war on Saddam Hussein and his regime, 40 million Arab viewers were watching Al Jazeera, the most popular news outlet in the Middle East. This incredibly important documentary directed by Jehane Noujaim (Startup.com), an Egyptian-American, will be the first time many in the West have had a chance to take a look behind the scenes and hear the philosophy of the journalists working for this operation. The network has been labeled by many in the West as "Osama Bin Laden's mouthpiece" while in some Arab countries, it has been banned for its free-form journalistic investigations.
Senior Producer Sameer Khader is definitely against the foreign policy of the Bush Administration but at one point admits that he would eventually like to move to the United States and give his children the benefits of an education there. This startling admission reveals the mixed feelings many of the journalists at Al Jazeera have toward America as both a democracy and an aggressive and expansionistic international superpower. His commentaries about the start of the second Iraq war and the media manipulated events at the end of the invasion, culminating with the toppling of the statue of Saddem Hussein in Bagdad, are remarkable and perspicacious.
Another very articulate figure in the Al Jazeera operation is Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist who was raised in Saudi Arabia, attended American universities, and headed the BBC Arab News in his last job. As a passionate Arab nationalist, he is shocked by the American indifference to loss of civilian lives in Iraq, and he vehemently defends the policy of Al Jazeera to present graphic pictures of innocent victims and casualties of American bombing and on-the-ground military missions. In one of his more cutting comments, he states that the end result of the so-called American invasion of Iraq is "Democratize or we'll shoot you."
The task of explaining the U.S. perspective on the war is given to Lieutenant Josh Rushing, Press Officer, Central Command. Although he seems friendly with some of the Al Jazeera journalists, he believes they have been biased against the United States and in favor of Saddam's regime. Of course, someone points out that American outlets such as Fox News are biased in favor of the Bush Administration's policies across the board. Rushing is most upset by Al Jazeera's broadcast of pictures of the bodies of slain American soldiers and interviews with some POWs, both of which are taboo in the U.S. media.
Also interviewed on this documentary is Tom Mintier, a veteran CNN correspondent who is highly critical of the information coming out of Central Command and what he considers to be a travesty of large proportions — the U.S.-led Coalition's bombing of Al-Jazeera which resulted in the death of a respected journalist from the network. David Shuster, a NBC correspondent, debates the war and the nature of a free media with Deema Khatib, a Syrian producer at Al-Jazeera. They are in total disagreement on these essential matters.
More than anything else, the value of this riveting and innovatively presented documentary is that it shows us a diversity of responses to Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath. Although this war was seen around the world, you may have missed much that was presented on Al-Jazeera. Now their voices and the suffering of the civilians can be seen and heard.
Screened at the New Directors/New Films Festival, March/April 2004, New York City