City of Ghosts

Few documentaries have left me as depressed and exhausted and downright scared as City of Ghosts.

Matthew Heineman’s film follows the citizen journalists of Syrian city Raqqa, who formed a group called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) to report on the atrocities wrought by ISIS as they rolled into town.

Now, I know much of this stuff existed previously on the internet but, forgive me, I haven’t previously sought out such footage of beheadings, executions, lynchings. Partly because I’m squeamish but mainly because I’m not giving the monsters any more clicks.

But Heineman’s film has made me confront such images and brilliantly contextualises them into the narrative of Isis take-over and the the resistance of the RBSS reporters who post furtive footage (taken at the highest of risks) online and release it to the world.

What it reveals is that the world has indeed stood by watching brutalising criminals invade a city of civilians and impose a reign of terror in the name of Allah. The “Silently” in the RBSS title, I assume, refers to our silence, not theirs.

Heinemann impressed me with Cartel Land a couple of years ago, his pulsating film from the frontline of Mexico’s drug cartel wars, although that film had a sort of accidental charm and humour while the bullets whistled overhead and innocents fought back, as much as they could. Heineman was like a tourist with a video cam, caught up in a situation instead of a holiday.

Here, the director is more observant and embedded, capturing the very real fear of these heroic reporters as they flee to Turkey and Germany, taking refuge in their own cells of resistance, gatherings that can’t be too removed from the jihadist terrorist cells one these days imagines lurking at the back of every grocery store in small town Belgium.

Deep into the film, there’s a massive irony in watching a violent anti-immigration march in Berlin, thuggish white faces snarling at our intrepid, scared Syrians whose refugee stories we now understand so well and whom we first meet as they’re receiving a journalism award at a glitzy ceremony in New York.

And I guess that’s Heineman’s point, to look behind the images and see the real people. It’s not easy, as the film acknowledges, but it stays away from any religious debate to show there’s a clear enemy here and the film is unequivocal in its condemnation of ISIS, their propaganda, their recruitment of children, their violence and criminality.

I wish I could tell you there was hope, though. These brave online reporters have death threats on them and no home to return to, their families and city wiped out. ISIS, fundamentalism, zeal – none of this will go away and even Heineman and his fellow witnesses can’t do much to change things. Indeed, knowing something exists these days just means you can ignore it, and keep silent.

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