As with his prior Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts isn’t just a story about life fighting to survive in the face of encroaching death—it’s an example of it as well. In a manner akin to his own subjects, the American documentarian risks serious peril to capture and disseminate necessary truths that might hopefully bring about an end to tremendous suffering. In his last film’s case, that enterprise concerned the ruthless Mexican drug cartels, and here, it’s an equally grave danger: ISIS. Wisely, Heineman doesn’t take to the Middle East frontlines, where reporters are often as under attack as soldiers. Yet for his sterling new effort, he does tag along with a group of Syrian men committed to revealing to the world the horrors being perpetrated by the Islamic State—a truly courageous cause that comes with the constant threat of assassination.
City of Ghosts’ focus is Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a grassroots group comprised of everyday men from the Syrian city of Raqqa. While their political activism began during the revolution against the tyrannical Assad regime, RBSS’ real birthday is April 2014, when ISIS rolled into town, waving their black flags, proclaiming the glory of their impending Caliphate, and setting up their HQ in the remote metropolis. RBSS members took to the streets on that day of arrival to capture footage of the group’s black-clad soldiers invading their home, thus setting themselves on an ongoing mission to document ISIS’ reign, which soon proved as terrible as expected, replete with introductory public-square executions that are replayed by Heineman’s film in all their blunt, traumatizing cruelty.
“This is the story of Raqqa, our forgotten Syrian city on the Euphrates river,” intones Aziz, an average twentysomething-turned-anti-fascist RBSS member, in introductory narration. City of Ghosts, though, isn’t just about the nightmare taking place in Raqqa; it’s also about RBSS’ freedom fighters themselves, and the treacherous path their work has set them on. Heineman’s film opens with RBSS receiving a 2015 International Press Freedom Award (from the Committee to Protect Journalists) at a New York City gala, where one guest tells Aziz, “Some situations are atrocious but others are way more atrocious.” As this lavish event plays out, the director cuts to atrocities back in Syria, some of which won’t be fully comprehensible until later. The point is clear: this is merely a brief respite from the ongoing hell endured by these men, who’ve been forced to abandon their native land to escape persecution, and wake up each day with the knowledge that their killer may be lurking around any corner.
A collective of “citizen journalists” who took to the field without any prior training in order to rebel against their city’s monstrous new overlords, RBSS commenced its operations inside Raqqa, secretly recording, and posting to Facebook and Twitter, speeches by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, point-blank gunshot executions, and other ghastly public displays of dismemberment, including decapitated corpses whose heads are exhibited above them on fence spikes. Unsurprisingly, these and other oppositional measures (such as flyers and spray-painted messages of defiance) didn’t sit well with the Islamic State, which quickly came after them personally, killing two of their members and sending others fleeing to neighboring regions. City of Ghosts picks up with three of those exiled gentleman as they set up shop in undisclosed safehouses in Germany and Gaziantep, Turkey (just across the Syrian border). “That’s when the real war began between ISIS and us,” Aziz says.
As RBSS conduct its business from these remote outposts, uploading videos, snapshots and reports sent in by their 17 still-in-Raqqa operatives, City of Ghosts, employing an intimate aesthetic that avoids textual info dumps and talking-head interviews in favor of up-close-and-personal reportage and chronologically-fractured plotting, provides a harrowing account of life inside that city. Courtesy of ISIS, it’s now a spectral place, where schools have been closed, soup kitchen lines are long, all dissidence is lethally punished, and the internet and satellite dishes have been eradicated—the better to isolate it from the rest of the globe, as well as to hide ISIS’ appalling crimes.
RBSS aims to thwart that plan, shining a glaring social media spotlight on ISIS’s darkness. To a great extent, that’s also the strategy of City of Ghosts, which presents countless sights so gory and heartless, they’re difficult to stomach. Perhaps most shocking and shameful of all are those that highlight the group’s methods of indoctrinating children into the ranks of their holy war. Those sequences are highlighted (by which I mean, lowlighted) by a homemade clip of a young tyke dressed in ISIS military garb, racing into a room and slicing off the head of a teddy bear and then yelling out in triumph, performing an act that’s no doubt been taught to him by the unseen adult wielding the camera.
Shot with Hollywood and video game-style techniques and production values, ISIS’ recruitment movies prove that they understand the value of manipulative media. That’s confirmed by their online death threats, including one sent to RBSS writer (and former math teacher) Mohamad, which takes the form of a Facebook post including a photo of his former residence, the message reading: “I liked the entrance to your home. I look forward to seeing you next time.” And it’s most heartbreakingly epitomized by an ISIS propaganda reel that—in an effort to intimidate RBSS cameraman Hamoud—depicts his captured father being shot dead in a lengthy scene assembled with multiple angles, dramatic close-ups and mounting suspense. Hamoud confesses that he repeatedly watches this snuff film in order to gain strength for his undertaking, but it’s hard not to see it as having the opposite, corrosive effect on this brave man, who has every reason to believe the next day could be his last.
Such a sense of impending doom is only amplified by the fact that, over the past two years, ISIS has taken its fight to Western Europe (Berlin, Paris, London, etc.) via all manner of terrorist attacks. City of Ghosts makes no bones about the jeopardy still facing RBSS in Raqqa and abroad. Nonetheless, in closing snapshots of Hamoud spending his first moments with his infant son, it refuses—like its subjects—to simply succumb to grief and hopelessness. Embracing the notion that evil’s greatest adversary is a truth exposed to all, Heineman’s doc is a stirring testament to valor and resolve in the face of tragedy and menace, and a case study in how wars are also fought, and sometimes won, on the battlefields of ideology and images.