City of Ghosts is a tribute to a remarkable group of individuals who are doing their best to inform the world of the horrors taking place in their home city. The award-winning activists known as “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) have done everything they can to stem the amount of propaganda ISIS produce by writing and broadcasting actual events from the ground of the terror group’s alleged “capital”.
RBSS has been documenting the arrival of ISIS following their involvement in the exile of the then-existing Syrian government. Spending their existence countering the propaganda and spin from the Islamic State, RBSS find themselves exiled and spread across two continents living in hiding due to the very real threat of death hanging over all of them. This documentary profiles the citizen journalists as they start to step out from behind their computers and into the public eye.
Director Matthew Heineman starts with them receiving the 2015 International Press Freedom Award and then backtracks to how they got to that point, profiling the individuals who risked everything to spread the word. The film is at its best when it dives into the world of these people, showing not only their motivation and drive to combat the misinformation spread by ISIS, but also their human side. Their desire to someday return to their home is high and there are some very emotional and personal moments; Heineman portrays his subjects in a way that truly grounds not only them, but their families as well. They’re people who have witnessed deaths and live with very real threats against their lives, but continue to stop at nothing to get the word out, even if the world is not paying attention.
Unfortunately, at times it feels like Heineman lets the documentary get away from him. What begins as a deep-dive into the organisation itself often feels over shadowed by some disturbing (albeit powerful) imagery of the horrors on the ground of Raqqa. The images are used for more shock value than anything and while most of them are indeed terrible (a particular video of a toddler beheading a stuffed toy was by far the most chilling to me), they don’t particularly further the “plot” and instead overshadow the overall narrative.
However, in all this there is still a deeply important message to the film, making it far more than just a study on brave individuals. Heineman comments on the world’s perception of this group in an important opening scene with a female photographer who comments that they “don’t smile enough”. Couple that with a brief confrontation with German nationalists, and you have a vivid picture of a group of unsung heroes alienated from the world thanks to widespread misinformation about them. Although RBSS hold strong to the thought they are taking away at least some of the potential threat posed by ISIS, they are welcomed into a wider world that does not understand their past, and clearly does not know how to handle their future.
At a base level, Heineman’s previous film Cartel Land was a better-constructed film. However, I don’t think there would be many more films this year that would match the importance of City of Ghosts. As expected, it’s not a particularly fun film, and while it does its best to leave the audience with a happy note for one of its main characters, the underlying themes of the film far overpower the end and will last long in your mind.
At the beginning of my screening, Heineman said that in a period when facts have become malleable, it is imperative to note that journalism and the freedom of information is more important than ever. Perhaps there are no better individuals to prove that than the brave people behind RBSS.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10