Although we hear news of turmoil in the Middle East and of the jihadist militants known as ISIS every day, the details can easily get lost in a blur of unfamiliar geography and confusing factionalism. Matthew Heineman's powerful new film City of Ghosts helps to contextualize the crisis by focusing on one concentrated area of the overall political tension, a small group of Syrian refugees who have created an underground news network to report on events in their occupied city.
During the 2013 Arab Spring movement, a civil war erupted Syria. The next year, the city of Raqqa was occupied by ISIS, which began a campaign of terror, torturing or executing their opponents and keeping tight controls over citizens. Communication with the outside world was restricted: Satellite dishes were banned and internet use was confined to public locations where it could be monitored.
City of Ghosts follows the efforts of a group of Syrians who challenged ISIS' rule by establishing the group "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently," using their website (www.raqqa-sl.com/en/) to report on violence in the city. Their work quickly came under attack by ISIS, and many of their members were tortured or murdered for their reporting. Heineman's film follows a small number of RBSS members who have taken refuge in Germany, living in hiding as they continue to tell Raqqa's story to the rest of the world.
It's a timely portrait of politics and resistance in the digital age, an unlikely combination of recycled online content balanced with the kind of courageous feet-on-the-ground journalism that Heineman gave us in Cartel Land, his 2015 film about the Mexican drug wars. There's no narration, no outside voice providing dates and facts. It's up to the viewer to connect the dots.
Curiously, a film that frequently consists of young men in drab lodgings watching online videos on their phones and laptops nonetheless becomes a more genuinely suspenseful post-Cold War thriller than any Jason Bourne movie. Even footage of seemingly mundane events like Syrian protesters posting anti-ISIS fliers on a wall in the dead of night becomes genuinely gripping. The clandestine video captures the excitement and the sense of danger in their act of defiance.
One assumes that by consenting to be filmed, the RBSS members shown in City of Ghosts are abandoning their anonymity, an act which also becomes part of the drama on screen. In one segment, a man almost casually reveals that he's been the subject of online death threats; ironically, he's more nervous about having to speak to the German police than he is about the threats.
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- The film conveys its subjects' alienation at arriving in a world so far removed from the one they've lost.
Another scene in which the group greets a newly arrived colleague encapsulates the very modernity that ISIS is determined to repress, which even the RBSS seem to treat with ambivalence. (Despite their Star Wars t-shirts, the RBSS show only mild interest in Western culture and tell the newcomer that he'll be amused at the round-the-clock drunkenness he'll see.) Heineman films the group walking through snow-covered city streets, quietly conveying the sense of their homelessness, the alienation of arriving in a world so far removed from the one they've lost.
As the film widens its scope from the occupation of Raqqa to the personal stories of the RBSS members, it takes a slightly morose turn. Although City of Ghosts shows the commitment and courage of the group, it also shows their emotional struggles. One harrowing moment shows two members obsessively re-watching an ISIS video of their father being executed. (It goes without saying that much of the footage in City of Ghosts is disturbing.) Another, near the end, shows one member nodding off in a chair, a visual reminder of the enormity of the burden they carry and the sheer exhaustion of their existence.
And just as the film moves from the political to the personal, it also expands from the events in Raqqa to the world, showing the backlash against refugees in Europe and the expansion of ISIS-inspired terrorism to Berlin, Paris and even Orlando. Throughout the film, Heineman shows the viewer the big picture of global events, but helps make them make sense by providing a human connection. City of Ghosts doesn't offer simple answers to the troubles in Raqqa, the refugee crisis in Europe or the dangers of terrorism, but it does give a clear look at the human lives that can't always be seen behind the headlines.