fri 14/06/2024

City of Ghosts review - chilling but inspiring report on Syria's citizen journalists | reviews, news & interviews

City of Ghosts review - chilling but inspiring report on Syria's citizen journalists

City of Ghosts review - chilling but inspiring report on Syria's citizen journalists

Quietly masterful and harrowing documentary on undercover reportage in Raqqa

Strength in restraint: 'City of Ghosts' paints its shadowy heroes as deeply human figures, flawed and cracking under the strain

Raqqa was once a prosperous if little-known town in northern Syria. Since 2014, however, it has served as the de facto capital of ISIS’s self-styled caliphate, and as such has been physically decimated, its population subjected to increasingly horrific subjugation.

Despite its title, however, it’s not the city itself that’s the subject of Matthew Heineman’s quietly masterful film. This revealing and at times harrowing documentary focuses instead on "Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently" (RBSS), a collective of citizen journalists that has existed since 2014 to chart the facts of Raqqa’s barely reported death behind the slick and often horrifying propaganda created by ISIS.

City of Ghosts is every bit as devastating in its content as you might expect. But the real strength of Heineman’s film lies in its restraint. That’s not only in the way he conveys ISIS atrocities – Heineman includes footage of some, including shocking sequences of public executions and beheadings, but he’s careful never to wallow or manipulate. But there’s restraint, too, in his portrayal of the RBSS figures themselves. They’re defiant, certainly, and display astonishing but quiet bravery in maintaining their non-violent resistance to ISIS propaganda, despite terrifying threats against them and their families. But Heineman paints them as deeply human figures, flawed and often at risk of cracking under the strain.City of GhostsThere’s Aziz, who flees Syria for Germany and reluctantly becomes RBSS’s spokesman because of his decent command of English, shown shaking uncontrollably in a memorable sequence towards the end of the film. And Hamoud (pictured above), an RBSS cameraman who flees twice – once from Syria to Turkey, then from Turkey to Germany following the assassination of RBSS mentor Naji Jerf in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep – yet still maintains hope for a peaceful future in his less than welcoming new homeland.

Heineman begins his film with some rapid historical scene-setting – a prosperous and calm period for Raqqa under the Assad regime (described a little too rosily, perhaps), then the city being swept up in the Arab Spring uprisings, and the sudden arrival of ISIS fighters and the descent into the violence of today. But the film quickly becomes the story of the figures behind RBSS – their founding of the organisation, initially to raise awareness among the population of Raqqa itself, their urgent flights abroad, and their precarious maintaining of RBSS activities from outside Syria, relying on a team of undercover colleagues still in the city documenting Raqqa’s collapse in utmost secrecy. In a harrowing sequence, two RBSS members watch and re-watch ISIS footage of their father being executed, drawing strength to continue their work from the rage and grief they feel. It serves to crystallise the personal impact of the extremists’ control of their city, and the struggles that those involved with RBSS need to overcome to continue their work.

By its conclusion, City of Ghosts is at once chilling and hopeful – in spokesman Aziz’s assertion that even the defeat of ISIS in Syria will not stop the bloodshed, because the organisation’s poisonous ideas have now spread way beyond that country’s borders. And in the hopes of cameraman Hamoud for marriage, parenthood, and a stable new life in Germany.

City of Ghosts is an intensely moving, inspiring film, one that focuses on quiet heroism and resilience born out of the darkest desperation – and also charts a media war of images and ideas very much of our time.

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