City of Ghosts
2017, R, 92 min. Directed by Matthew Heineman.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 28, 2017
Documentary filmmaker Heineman’s last film was the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, and City of Ghosts only ups the ante when it comes to the horrors of conflict zones and how normal citizens react when caught between a bullet and a hard place. The setting here is the embattled Syrian city of Raqqa, which, since the summer of 2014, has been the self-designated capital of ISIS’s bloodthirsty caliphate. That said, Heineman takes pains to show as little of the end result of the mass beheadings, public crucifixions, and so on, but there are some grainy, on-camera executions, however, so sensitive viewers should take note.
Instead, City of Ghosts follows a group of citizen journalists struggling to counter ISIS’s admittedly skillful use of the internet and social media as tools not only for propaganda but also, more importantly, for recruitment. Known by the weighty moniker “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” or RBSS, they currently make up the only legitimate source of reportage from the city. News out of Raqqa has been effectively shut down by ISIS, but a handful of courageous residents have remained in the besieged city to document the unending nightmare that the once peaceful city on the edge of the Euphrates has become. Using cell phones and overseen by several tech-savvy Syrian refugees stationed first in Turkey, and later in Berlin (after their mentor was gunned down in broad daylight), these anonymous, heroic men and women record glimpses of ISIS’s unfathomable brutality and then upload the footage to their connections in Germany, who then disseminate it to the global media. (This is in some ways reminiscent of Anders Østergaard’s 2008 doc Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country.)
There are few wins and more than enough sorrow to go around here. One of the journalists was captured and tortured, along with his father. Of the self-exiled “editors,” they’re a fiercely determined group, but the grief of losing loved ones, friends, Raqqa-based journalists, and their very homeland to the black-flagged nihilists that make up ISIS is etched into their very postures. They slump, their eyes are perpetually bleary, and they chain-smoke constantly. Still, against all odds – to avoid assassination, they switch houses every few days – they define the value of journalism and of journalists. There is zero “fake news” here. Somebody ought to force Team Trump to take a gander at what the real world looks like. (If only.)