“City of Ghosts” is documentarian Matthew Heineman’s third film to bow at Sundance, after 2012’s health care doc “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” (co-directed with Susan Froemke), and 2015’s searing “Cartel Land,” an immersive, bone-rattling film embedded on the front lines of the drug cartel war in Mexico. This year, he brings “City of Ghosts,” to Park City, which could be described as “ ‘Cartel Land’ but with ISIS,” however Heineman’s too sophisticated a filmmaker for that facile comparison.
He does once again venture down a violent and dark rabbit hole, tackling an equally scary and threatening subject, finding and profiling the people who refuse to stand up against these forces of evil. But “City of Ghosts” is controlled, focused, and emotional, while “Cartel Land” was wild, visceral and morally complicated.
In “City of Ghosts,” the heroes are easy to root for, a team of citizen journalists from Raqqa, Syria, who came together to start the website and social media channels titled “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS). In the wake of the Arab Spring and uprising against the Assad regime, ISIS moved into Raqqa, taking the city on the banks of the Euphrates as their caliphate, their garden of Eden, rumbling into the city in a black-clad motorcade.
We’re introduced to the characters of RBSS as Aziz, the spokesman of the group, mentions a new threat against his life made through ISIS social media channels. He’s preparing to accept the International Press Freedom Award in New York, feted in a luxurious, twinkling ballroom. There’s a deep irony in the moment as a photographer urges RBSS filmmaker Hamoud to “smile, you’re so serious, my friend.” That’s because their work, and their lives, are deadly serious.
The film’s title comes from Aziz’s description of his hometown, the stronghold of ISIS in Syria, a city isolated, demoralized and destroyed by its abuser. Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad (a high school teacher turned reporter) and their compatriots at RBSS were just normal guys, students, teachers, filmmakers, who became citizen journalists because they were compelled to get the truth out about what was happening to their home.
They began to secretly film the acts of terror committed by ISIS, including public executions, bodies laid out in the town square, heads on spikes in a medieval show of force. Despite the inherent danger in capturing these images, and family members urging them to stay safe, Hamoud admits that for him, “danger has a special taste.” Their work is far more than an adrenaline rush though, putting their lives on the line to defend their city with words and images.
Heineman has a unique ability to condense and explain complicated information and political events without straying from the deeply personal journeys of his subjects or relying on talking heads or text. Simple voiceover from Aziz tells their story, married with absolutely chilling footage. The footage from Raqqa comes from the citizen journalists of RBSS secretly recording the atrocities carried out by ISIS in the once flourishing city. Zipping by on motorbikes, hovering at the edge of a mob, the RBSS members capture children clamoring in line for water, bombed out houses, bodies in the streets, children skipping with an ISIS soldier, singing songs about jihad.
But Heineman captures remarkable moments as well, as he follows the members of the RBSS into exile, including Aziz, Hamoud, and Mohamad. With bounties on their heads, they have fled to Turkey and Germany, continuing on with their work, serving as a liaison to the outside world. They’re just a bunch of guys hunched over their weapons of choice, laptops and smartphones, chain-smoking as they receive updates from their heavily disguised contacts inside the city, uploading photos and videos as fast as they can.
Heineman shoots Mohamad watching video on a smartphone of his street at home reduced to rubble, captures footage of Aziz sending forlorn Facebook messages to his deceased brother, drowned on sunken refugee boat. In a stunning sequence, we see Hamoud watching an expensively produced video from ISIS of his own father’s execution, an act of aggression and retaliation toward Hamoud, to whom they could not get. He watches the video stone-faced, says it gives him strength, and blots blood from the inside of his mouth. It’s spine-tingling, pit-in-your-stomach stuff.
The film is as much about the power of the media as it is about war and revolution. ISIS is ultimately waging a war of images, from the black uniforms, to the public displays of violence and death, using print magazines and social media channels to communicate, and showing their ruthlessness in execution videos. Their production values have gone up, too, as they’ve started to create exciting, Hollywood-style films to entice new members, and have heavily recruited members with media experience.
Despite the horrific death they’ve endured, the threats, the fleeing, the racism they experience abroad, RBSS knows that, in many ways, they are winning the media war, exposing the fraud and lies of ISIS. That’s the fuel to their fire. Simultaneously, the stakes are high and extremely stark. It’s black and white for RBSS — “either we win or they kill all of us,” Aziz says, shaking and smoking in his apartment. That’s all there is to it.
The experience of watching “City of Ghosts” is similar to “Cartel Land” in that you remain wide-eyed, jaw dropped the entire time, letting out involuntary yelps and gasps here and there. Heineman doesn’t sugar coat anything at all. This is the truth about what is happening in Syria, and we should be shocked, dismayed and horrified.
Due to the nature of his subjects, the moral and ethical lines are clear and uncomplicated, but that doesn’t make the issues any less thorny. Does one continue doing this kind of work when your foes are murdering and threatening your family? Do you endure danger to continue fighting for a home that may no longer exist?
Ultimately, “City of Ghosts” quietly asserts itself and the work of RBSS as crucial weapons in the fight against ISIS. If ISIS is fighting a war of propaganda, banning satellite dishes and internet access and cameras, those are the tools that the citizens can and must use to resist these forces, to expose their truth. It’s a message that reaches far beyond the limits of Raqqa. [A]