Movie Review: Documentary “City of Ghosts,” from filmmaker Matthew Heineman
The bullshit term “fake news” is being disproved every single day with excellent journalism from our nation’s leading newspapers and documentary filmmakers, and City of Ghosts from Matthew Heineman is a moving, fantastically made example of the needed fight against willful ignorance. This may be the most impactful documentary of the year, an examination of the rise of ISIS in Syria and the attempts by civilian journalists Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently to combat the terrorist group’s propaganda and misinformation with their own footage and commentary. Prepare to be emotionally ravaged.
Heineman, who previously helmed the acclaimed 2015 documentary Cartel Land, criss-crosses Germany, Turkey, and the United States in following the members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of citizen journalists who began videotaping what was happening in their hometown of Raqqa, Syria, when the uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad began in 2012. When the rebellion against al-Assad created a power vacuum commandeered by the Islamic State, RBSS began documenting their atrocities, too—and their video footage and social media updates, shared with Western news media like the BBC and CNN, finally generated international attention in the nightmare that is happening every day in Syria.
City of Ghosts may honestly have the most straightforward explanation of how the Islamic State originated, operates, and maintains power that I’ve ever seen or read anywhere, and it is unbelievably shocking and horrifying. (It actually took me three hours to watch this 92-minute documentary because I kept having to pause it through my sobs, walk away for a few minutes to calm down, and then come back to it.) The documentary begins with voiceover narration from self-proclaimed RBSS “spokesman” Aziz as he matter-of-factly explains how ISIS came to be. Over footage of ISIS shooting blindfolded prisoners, decapitating others, and displaying their heads on a fence in the town square, Aziz explains how “They painted our city black and shrouded it in darkness,” causing him and his friends to create the “first screams of RBSS.”
The primary tension of City of Ghosts is that the Islamic State has put out public calls for the deaths of RBSS members, making their advocacy and activism not only dangerous for the journalists in Syria (there are 17 RBSS correspondents inside the country as of the documentary’s filming), but also for those who have left Syria and maintain RBSS externally. The aforementioned Aziz is the face of RBSS, and with his flat-brim baseball hat, black windbreaker, and black backpack looks more like a hardcore-listening 20something than the de facto leader of this group. In Germany, he lives in a small apartment, with a stack of photographs of relatives and friends who have died either in Syria or when trying to flee. Also in Germany are brothers Hamoud, a photographer and cameraman, and Hassan, whose family inside Syria has been systematically murdered by ISIS for retaliation. “ISIS doesn’t represent the Islam I know,” says Hamoud, whose mouth spontaneously bleeds because of anger and stress. “In the end, we are Muslim.”
The three of them are in constant contact with other RBSS members in Gaziantep, Turkey, on the border with Syria. Their closest friend and colleague is reporter Mohamad, who fled Syria with his wife (“Fancy outfits ... we bought them in vain,” he says to her as they look over their few belongings) and who used to be a high school math teacher before joining RBSS. After one of his students was arrested, “I couldn’t stay silent anymore.” Mohamad spends his days coordinating with reporters inside Syria, battling crappy telephone and Internet connections and constantly telling their contacts to stay safe during government air strikes and at ISIS checkpoints—friends have been killed in both Syria and abroad. “Either we will win or they will kill all of us,” says Aziz, and the frankness and acceptance with which he says that is sobering.
Heineman has truly astonishing access: He visits with RBSS members in safehouses and in hotel rooms, watches as they contact sources and upload videos and news stories (“When they taught that class, I skipped it,” Mohamad admits when a colleague points out that his accent symbols are incorrect in a Microsoft Word file), and accompanies them to a funeral for a murdered colleague in Turkey (“You deserve Syria, you deserve freedom,” cries a mourner as she kisses the assassinated man’s face) and to a far-right, anti-immigrant protest in Germany. The company that created the “FUCK RFGS” cellphone case I saw a woman carrying at the protest can go fuck itself forever.
The information City of Ghosts includes from ISIS is also appalling, and it helps to have Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, and the other RBSS members put it into context. Watching ISIS members force Raqqa civilians, at gunpoint, to chant “Allah Akbar” for them to use in their propaganda videos; a child decked out in ISIS gear flashing peace symbols out the window as their pickup trucks roll into Raqqa; the music video juxtaposing the executions of prisoners with crooned lyrics about how “our maidens await” ISIS martyrs in paradise; a warning video to RBSS with pictures of their assassinated friends and the threat “Know that your work in journalism doesn’t protect your blood.”
City of Ghosts is impossible to watch but also absolutely necessary to watch because none of our feelings during the documentary—our disgust, our sadness, our empathy—compare with what Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, and the other members of RBSS are living every single day. That they have to watch ISIS videos announcing new executions with the morbid curiosity “Do we know them?”; that they have to adapt to all-new lives in Germany, a place where they can throw snowballs at each other in the streets but still need police protection; that when they watch air-strike footage sent by sources, they recognize their own homes in the wreckage. “I don’t remember the last time we were all together,” Aziz says. That one quiet admission is as jarring, harrowing, and unforgettable as anything else in City of Ghosts—one of the best films of 2017, and one of the most vital documentaries I’ve ever seen.