City of Ghosts Review
Matthew Heineman's follow up to Cartel Land takes us into Raqqa, Syria, highlighting the bravery of RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), a group organised and run by ordinary Syrian civilians turned reporter-activists, who document the struggles of those trapped within the city. The outbreak of the Syrian civil war in the aftermath of the Arab Spring led to Raqqa becoming the first provincial capital lost by President Assad's government. It was a vacuum that was soon filled by ISIS within a couple of years, forming the stronghold for the terrorist group.
What Heineman makes brutally clear is the extreme level of viciousness and inhumanity that the people of Syria have been subjected to for the past few years. For obvious reasons Western media outlets refuse to broadcast the executions carried out by ISIS. City of Ghosts, however, shows a number of innocent people who have been shot, thrown off buildings or savagely beheaded, their severed heads perched atop the railings that loom over their strewn bodies, put on display as sign of strength and a warning to others who may be thinking of resisting the terrorist caliphate.
The stories of the faceless souls who have been butchered by the forces of ISIS or Assad, or those who have tragically perished in the sea, have filled our TV screens since 2014. City of Ghosts gives us the names, voices and lives of those who have had to abandon their homes and families, but are determined to open a window into Raqqa and Syria to expose the ongoing atrocities. Aziz was a college student when the Syrian civil war began and he is now the spokesman for RBSS, living in exile in Germany. Hamoud fled to neighbouring Turkey and then onto Germany, as ISIS continue their hunt. He was forced to watch his father executed in an online video, as Daesh sought revenge for his journalistic work. Mohamad used to be a maths teacher but similarly had to move covertly from Turkey to Germany with his wife due to the increasing threat to their lives.
We learn little about who these men were before their lives were upturned, instead focussing on the network they sustain within Raqqa. Several local residents shoot videos on their mobile phones that are then encrypted and sent across to the members of the external team, before being published online. They each tell their own stories and reveal the stress, anguish and fear that lurks around almost every corner, aware that, just like Naji Jerf their journalism mentor, they too could be gunned down in broad daylight.
The situation in Syria seems to grow more complex by the day with the conflict now a pawn piece on the international stage. Heineman wisely avoids digging into the recent history of the why and how, instead concentrating on the propaganda war taking place between RBSS and ISIS. This ideological battle between Syrian civilians and the occupying terrorist force serves as a microcosm for the information war taking place between endless factions in the mainstream world. Heineman expands on this further when members of RBSS experience a neo-Nazi demonstration in Germany, which feels eerily familiar to the dictatorial approach used by ISIS.
The decision to use footage containing a number of horrific deaths will no doubt prove to be a divisive point of discussion. In many ways it feels like shock tactics, and even though we have the luxury of only having to watch, rather than living with it as the people of Raqqa must, their inclusion feels unnecessary and undermines the power of the human stories being told. Along with the use of the score, the point is pressed home too forcefully when it doesn’t have to be, given the subject matter and visceral nature of all the other available content. What the film does successfully capture is the truth about these real-life heroes, a group who are prepared to put their lives on the line in an attempt to save a dying city.