Directed by Matthew Heineman
Documentary Film Review by Owen Herman
Great films can sometimes be hard to recommend. City of Ghosts, the documentary about a group of civilian journalists who risk their lives to expose and combat ISIS, features highly disturbing and graphic footage of ISIS executions as well as images of the terrorist organisation’s upsettingly successful brainwashing of young children. One would be forgiven for not wanting to watch such content, but those who do will experience an incredibly powerful account of defiance that, despite its dark content, will stick with you for the right reasons.
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently started off as a Facebook page created by a group of civilians to report on the atrocities committed by ISIS after the fall of the Assad regime in Raqqa, Syria. RBSS has since morphed into something greater and has received international acclaim. It is now run both by external groups who escaped Syria (now living in Turkey and Germany) and internal undercover agents risking their lives in the terrorists’ stronghold. In 2015 the group was awarded the International Press Freedom Award, footage of which bookends the film, which seems like the most minuscule of victories for the men who have lost friends and family in the quest to reveal the truth.
Matthew Heineman, director of Cartel Land, demonstrates once again that he is a top documentary filmmaker and gets to the heart of what’s most important about this story: the people. City of Ghosts follows the individuals who founded the movement, a group of intelligent and softly spoken civilians whose lives have been upturned by the events in their home city. Forced into hiding, they continue the fight to expose propaganda and let the world know what’s really happening in Raqqa.
The film completely humanises them, showing them teasing and giggling amongst themselves; these are not superheroes, but ordinary citizens who are modest, charming, and likeable. The camera picks out their sad eyes that constantly reveal inner fear and sadness, even when they force a smile.
I was wary about the violent content the documentary was meant to feature. The worry was that the disturbing images would be exploited for shock factor, but this is far from the case. The images provide context for the horror the men of RBSS talk about. The film also chooses to hide some of the (even) more horrifying scenes, including the execution of the father of one of the group’s founders, showing the intelligence to be respectful to those involved, whilst still conveying the nightmare that ISIS have brought.
City of Ghosts offers a phenomenal insight into the lives of ordinary people who have shown extraordinary bravery. It provides context to the frightening events that have affected so many across the world, and explores thought-provoking themes about the good and bad of social media. Despite the sickening executions, the moments that have stuck with me the most were those where the brave men of RBSS share a rare smile, united as a family through their shared fears and their inspiring acts of courage.