CITY OF GHOSTS (2017) – Review
In March 2014, the military group calling itself the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took over the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, and declared it the capital of their caliphate. Journalists were no longer able to enter the city to report on events, and ISIS began releasing a series of propaganda videos painting a rosy picture of the city, as a recruiting tool. But a group of young pro-democracy activists stepped in as journalists, reporting on what was really happening in Raqqa. While ISIS’ slick Hollywood-style media campaign presented Raqqa as a peaceful, fully functioning city, the citizen journalists of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) told the world what as really taking place, with eye-witness reports and footage of the chaos, dysfunction and violence gripping the city.
Documentarian Mathew Heineman (CARTEL LAND) shines a spotlight on Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) in the moving, heart-breaking CITY OF GHOSTS. Heineman was nominated for an Oscar for CARTEL LAND, a remarkable documentary that took the filmmaker and viewers inside a Mexican drug cartel.
The documentary opens in 2015 as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is being honored for its journalistic contributions by the nonprofit group the Committee to Protect Journalists. Heineman serves as director, cameraman, producer and co-editor in this often personal documentary. Like in CARTEL LAND, Heineman embedded himself with the subjects of his documentary, which gave him remarkable access and a kind of fly-on-the-wall view of events. The filmmaker made contact with the members of RBSS in Turkey, where they had fled after things became too heated in Syria. Even on the other side of the border, their work continued, as they posted video and reports received from contacts still in Raqqa.
The film focuses on four members – Aziz, Hamoud, Hassam, and Mohamad. None of the four men were journalists originally but brought an array of skills to the mission. Aziz’s mastery of English made him the spokesman, drawing attention to the information on the website, while the others served as cameraman, technical expert, and reporter respectively. Most were college students in their twenties, and one, Mohamad, a former math teacher in his thirties, who had been inspired by the Arab Spring. When ISIS took over their city and declared it the capital of their caliphate, they were appalled the awful conditions that quickly arose as well as by ISIS’ slickly-made propaganda campaign. Along with other Syrians using social media, they exposed ISIS’ lies and misinformation on their website, counteracting ISIS’ recruiting efforts and drawing their ire.
One cannot help but be moved by the bravery, resourcefulness and drive of the people behind Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, who endured painful personal losses in their work. They worked in secret in Raqqa, on the run, and then in exile, to get out the truth of what is happening in their city. The documentary gives a close-up view of the daily lives of the members of RBSS. The film is strongest when it lets the subjects speak, to tell their own story, which it frequently does. The film is light on details of the men’s personal backgrounds and the group’s methods, probably to protect them from ISIS.
The first half of the film is inspiring, thrilling even, as the members of RBSS out-think and outmaneuver ISIS assassins, posting footage and reports while in hiding and on the move. The documentary also offers samples of ISIS’ Hollywood-style propaganda videos. After ISIS took over Raqqa, it switched from amateur videos promoting their cause to more polished, professional ones which borrowed Hollywood techniques and look like action movies, which created a powerful recruiting tool.
Some of the man-in-the-street footage RBSS gathered and posted is also included in the documentary. Some of this material, including public executions, is shockingly graphic, well beyond what might be seen on American media. Coupled with the regular reports of ISIS’ assassinations of RBSS members and even their families, it creates a visceral reaction.
The film is often deeply personal, presenting detailing their personal sacrifices and costs. When ISIS closes in on them in Syria and kills some members, the leaders flee to Turkey to continue their reporting, publishing material sent to them despite ISIS’ efforts to shut down all means of communication. When ISIS assassins reach into Turkey, the team flees to Europe.
Up to this point, the film has the driving heroic energy of a fictional film, a narrative arc that makes the audience hope for an ending where these brave souls win their battle over ISIS. But this is not a Hollywood movie, this is reality, where the battle in Syria is still unfolding and the ending unclear.
Once it Europe, the mission becomes more difficult with communication lines stretched thin. The tone changes and the film loses some steam, The work becomes harder, getting information out becomes difficult, and ISIS becomes more effective at tracking down their reporters and it is impossible to add more reporters in Syria. In this more distant place, Syria starts to feel far off, and personal lives are changing as these mostly young men grow into more adult lives. One member and his wife welcome their first child. At the same time, the leaders of RBSS are confronted with anti-immigrant protesters in Germany, who ironically seem unable to distinguish them from the forces they are fighting. When the threat of assassination reaches out again, they are faced with a choice: hide or risk death to continue their work.
The documentary shifts from RBSS’ reporting to the personal lives of its members as it progresses. The film is revealing and moving, but does not have a strong resolution because the fight in Syria is still going on. Still, the film is worth seeing for its personal stories and its realism, because real life rarely has the neat endings of fiction. Their work goes on, as their lives go on, adjusting to a new life in Europe, wondering if they will ever return to their homeland and families. One of the subjects sums it up, in a comment: “Either we win or they kill us all.”
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars