Film Review: In the documentary 'City of Ghosts,' citizen journalism activists risk their lives in an Islamic State stronghold
So-called heroes sling into action just about every weekend of the summer movie season, but if you want to see the genuine article, you'll have to make your way to "City of Ghosts," Matthew Heineman's documentary about the Syrian citizen journalist collective of Raqqa.
Raqqa, the provincial Eastern Syrian city on the banks of the Euphrates, has for the last three years been the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The city first drew militants in the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but in the revolution's wake, IS set up camp. Black flags overran the city, as did beheadings, crucifixions and torture.
It has been one of the most impossible places on Earth to practice daily life, let alone journalism. And yet it was here that one of the more inspiring tales of citizen reporting was born with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS. They're a small group of mostly anonymous Raqqa residents who became activists, risking and sometimes losing their lives while reporting from the heart of IS darkness
Heineman, the director of the Oscar-nominated "Cartel Land," has the good sense to let RBSS leaders tell their own story, making for a bracingly intimate, heartbreaking and ultimately stirring window into the tragedy of modern Syria.
They are mostly young, previously unpolitical men who found the courage to resist when the Islamic State, or ISIS, began terrorizing their home city. They are armed with nothing more than a hashtag and a logo featuring a splash of blood, but RBSS became a vital resource for news inside Raqqa for media outlets around the world.
"We punctured a hole in the darkness," Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza, the 25-year-old co-founder, narrates.
For the media-savvy Islamic State, who made slickly produced videos of their atrocities their trademark recruitment tool, RBSS is more than a nuisance. It's a threat to its PR of savagery. Stealthily, the citizen reporters get out news, video and sometimes embarrassing details of IS on social media.
The risk is extreme. One reporter named Moutaz is captured, tortured and shot in public. Other volunteers are assassinated. Their teacher, Naji Jerf, is hunted down on the streets in Turkey. Even their families are in danger. The cameraman Hamoud's father is taken and shot on video. In one of the film's most agonizing moments, Heineman films Hamoud watching the video. He is shaken but remains resolute in his cause.
Several of the group's leaders flee to Germany and Turkey, but continue to report remotely via anonymous reporters and sources in Raqqa. Much of the footage shot by Heineman comes from his time in their European safe houses or being celebrated by the Committee to Protect Journalists with the 2015 Press Freedom Award.
In this way, "City of Ghosts" narrows in scope just when it should expanding. Its second half is unable to keep pace with the wider story of IS, or to maintain its close-up of Raqaa. That's surely somewhat inevitable considering the prohibitive violence in the city. But Heineman, whose "Cartel Land" intrepidly plunged into vigilante groups along the U.S.-Mexico border, appears more at home on the battlefield than distant from the action.
Still, the heroism on display in "City of Ghosts" is unforgettable, and the film remains an ever-essential reminder of the high costs and vital necessity of journalism in this — or any — fight against evil.
This week, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition, breached the old city walls of Raqqa. There are growing hopes the Islamic State will soon be pushed out of its first stronghold. But, as RBSS and others has cautioned, civilian casualties have been high and the fighting goes on.
"City of Ghosts," an Amazon Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "disturbing violent content, and for some language." Running time: 92 minutes. Three stars out of four.