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Both Sides Now

Not rushing to judgment: Marine Captain John Rushing is a central figure in the Al-Jazeera doc Control Room.

When a reporter manages to reach Marine Captain Josh Rushing on his cell phone, it can only be to confirm a few facts or make small talk about, oh, where he grew up or what the weather's like in Los Angeles or other trivialities. Yes, he can say he was indeed born in Dallas and did indeed go to Lewisville High School in the late 1980s--"back when it was still a country town just to the north of Dallas," he says with a chuckle. And, yes, he does indeed work in the movie business: He's the liaison between the Marine Corps and the movie industry, which means he scans every script involving the Marines and decides whether his branch of the armed services will aid in the production by providing technical assistance or military training or even tanks and airplanes. He loves the movies, to the point of quoting the John Cusack film Grosse Point Blank when talking about the spot where his childhood house was replaced by a convenience store. "You can't go home," he says, "but you can shop there." He will tell you his just might be the coolest gig in the Corps.

But the one thing Rushing can't talk about is his appearance in Control Room, director Jehane Noujaim's new documentary about the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news network, which, with some 45 million viewers, considers itself the CNN of the Middle East and has become the scourge of the Bush administration since September 11, 2001. Rushing was the military's press liaison at U.S. Central Command in Qatar as the U.S. military was rolling into Iraq and just as Noujaim was starting to shoot her film. Not only is he seen throughout the movie thoughtfully and eloquently debating American foreign policy with Al-Jazeera's reporters, but Rushing also assisted Noujaim in snipping red tape, allowing her into Centcom during the early days of the war.

Though Rushing was initially made available for interviews, along with Noujaim and Al-Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader, he was just as quickly taken off the list. According to the director, his superiors at the Pentagon have not yet seen the movie, in which Al-Jazeera's reporters and producers are sympathetically portrayed as West-loving but war-hating, and simply didn't feel comfortable with Rushing speaking to the media.

It's also possible that Rushing's comments in The Village Voice last month didn't sit well with his commanding officers. Before he was ordered to stop talking, Rushing came off as critical of not only the American network's sanitized visions of war--the bloodless body counts and the scant footage of soldiers and civilians killed in the name of "enduring freedom"--but also of the very institution for which he has served for a decade.

"In America war isn't hell--we don't see blood; we don't see suffering," he told the Voice's Kareem Fahim. "All we see is patriotism, and we support the troops. It's almost like war has some brand marketing here...Al-Jazeera shows it all. It turns your stomach, and you remember there's something wrong with war."

Rushing had said he was going to participate in post-screening question-and-answer sessions with Noujaim. But now, the man whose daily duties but a year ago consisted entirely of speaking to the press can no longer speak to the press at all.

"And it's really upsetting, because if there's anyone I want to represent me as an American in the military, it's him," says the Egyptian-born, Harvard-educated Noujaim, who co-directed the 2001 documentary Startup.com. "I must say that to every kind of Arab reporter that he dealt with, he really put an amazing face on the military and made it seem to them, 'Look, we're all human beings, and we're trying to figure this out here,' and I think that that's the best way that you can present yourself. What Rushing does is he assumes an intelligence in the person he's speaking to, and that's what you miss with a lot of people who are spokespeople."

Rushing, in a way, acts as the stand-in for an audience that might believe the Bush party line about how Al-Jazeera's a propaganda machine but just might have some interest in finding out what those people have to say--you know, those people for whom the war unfolds not just on television but in their own bombed-out front yards.

In the movie, Rushing talks about his reaction to Al-Jazeera's showing graphic footage of dead American soldiers and of the prisoners of war captured with Private Jessica Lynch when the 507th Maintenance Company's convoy was ambushed near An Nasiriya in March 2003.

"It was powerful, because Americans won't show those kinds of images," Rushing says of the footage that provoked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to accuse the network of violating the Geneva Conventions. "It made me sick to my stomach." But he admits that scenes of dead Iraqi civilians killed during a bombing in Basra, while "equally if not more horrifying," didn't affect him as much. "I remember having seen it, in the Al-Jazeera offices, and thought to myself, 'That's gross; that's bad,' and then going away, probably to dinner or something." The revelation is shocking, but not appalling; after all, he probably speaks for most of the people in the theater.

Control Room, which opened in New York City on May 21 and broke the beloved Film Forum theater's 34-year-old weekend single-screen box-office record, ultimately offers little history about the 8-year-old Al-Jazeera, which sprang out of the ashes of a joint venture between the Orbit radio and TV service and BBC's Arabic Television. It doesn't go into great detail about allegations that Saddam Hussein's intelligence services had operatives working within the network, nor does it chronicle the tenuous relationship between the United States government and Sheik Hamad, the emir of Qatar who finances the network (at, allegedly, an annual loss of $100 million). And it doesn't talk at all about how Al-Jazeera refuses to use the words "suicide bombers" or "terrorism," instead referring to "martyrs" and "acts of violence," as pointed out in a recent Newsday story.

It's simply a raw, fly-on-the-wall peek at the goings-on of a network that insists it's doing nothing more than reporting the news and, just maybe, even trying to bring democracy to the region, as Samir Khader told the filmmakers. Noujaim says she is no journalist and has no agenda; she had simply been in Egypt before the war, after a project fell through, and became fascinated with Al-Jazeera, its depictions of war in Afghanistan and Israel, and its tenuous relationship with the United States. So she camped out in the Al-Jazeera commissary and slowly convinced the network's employees to let her interview them and shoot them at work.

One of the last to agree was Khader, who insists he is a shy man who would rather produce from far behind the camera; he says he was stunned to discover he was a central figure in the film, but figured, well, what's done is done. But not everyone at Al-Jazeera is thrilled with the movie: Noujaim says she's heard that several reporters were particularly upset with a scene in which they're shown expressing their outrage and embarrassment over the Iraqis pulling down the statue of Saddam in Baghdad last year. "You saw the emotions involved," Noujaim says, "and journalists are not supposed to have emotions."

But Khader, in his first trip to the United States ("Really a great nation," he says), insists he has yet to find one American who has an issue with Al-Jazeera or the film. And, amazingly enough, he's more than a little disappointed.

"I'm still waiting to meet people who will criticize me openly, who tell me that 'You're unprofessional; you're telling lies,' exactly like Mr. Rumsfeld," he says. "I didn't meet these people yet, but I hope I would meet them because it's with them that I have to do some work to bridge the gap between us. But at the end of the day, Al-Jazeera is a news channel like any news organization in the United States. The only difference is the perspective. You see things from a given perspective; we see things from another. But in the end it's the same event, the same thing. No one said it was easy. It's difficult, continual suffering day after day. Because my job is to report events. I'm a journalist. But at the same time I'm a human being and part of that region. My future and the future of my children will be affected by anything happening in Iraq. I don't know. Nowadays, if a young man or woman decides to take journalism as a career, he or she will know that most of his work will be around suffering. "


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