In his previous award-winning documentary, Cartel Land, director Matthew Heineman presented a terrifying picture of the Mexican Drug War. Throughout, there was a continuing sense of peril, an all-encompassing feeling of total discomfort that at any moment something threatening would lash out and harm those on camera, perhaps even the filmmakers themselves. In his new documentary, City of Ghosts, that same sense of urgency is missing.
That’s not to say that the subject is of any less importance. The picture presented of a Syrian media activist group and its reason to be are of nightmares. But where Cartel Land placed you firmly at the center, the heroes of City of Ghosts work from a distance, in Germany, where they have fled. It’s the absence of imminent danger that makes the difference; it sets a different tone. If anything, unlike Cartel Land, it allows you to breathe.
Raqqa is a Syrian city roughly a hundred miles east of Aleppo. A voice-over tells us that it was once an ordinary city with a normal life; the happiness of one house spread to every house on the street. With introductory shots of children playfully jumping into water to escape the summer heat, coupled with film of a happy, local wedding reception, there’s always the issue of a documentary overplaying its hand with idyllicism before it’s even begun. Adding that, “For us, life was beautiful,” only underlines that desire to present Raqqa as a place of peace, a Shangri-La in the middle of Syria. In a documentary as good as this, such an introduction feels a little too obvious, particularly when we know that throughout President Bashar al-Assad’s leadership, Raqqa was hardly tranquil.
After a years of oppression, opposition to the 19th president of Syria developed. When a group of teenage high-schoolers painted ‘Down With The Regime’ on the walls of their school, fifteen children were taken by the authorities and tortured. That’s how it began.
Opposition forces to the government grew, but then, in came the Islamic State to Raqqa, the uncompromising, murderous soldiers of ISIS, bringing with them promises of order, leadership, and prosperity. “At first glance they looked like other military groups,” the voice-over states, but things quickly changed. Those who wouldn’t join were tortured and executed, shot in the middle of town, their bodies left in the streets as examples for all to see. Director Heineman incorporates stunning, shocking scenes of ISIS executions, filmed secretly by those who had yet to flee.
The Islamic State made Raqqa its Syrian capital. It cut the area off to the outside world and halted all communications. The world, not even Syria, was aware of what had happened and continued to happen in Raqqa. The city was being silently slaughtered, and nobody knew.
It was out of this that a secret citizen journalist group developed. Desperately wanting the world to know what was occurring within the limits of their home, these young men and women hunkered down and reported the human rights abuses of the Islamic State. “In my opinion,” states a reporter, “A camera is more powerful than a weapon.” Through its work on the Internet, with reporting and powerful, secretly filmed images professionally edited, it did what it could to oppose the suggestion that the city had welcomed the occupation of ISIS. They called themselves RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently) and City of Ghosts is their story.
Having seen the work produced by RBSS, and realizing the potential of a professionally produced video, ISIS produced its own, well-produced shorts. Knowing who these journalists are, and not having the ability to get to them with the immediacy of simply kidnapping someone off the street, the Islamic State turned to the families of the reporters who had remained. When a journalist and his brother in Germany watch a slickly produced ISIS video presenting the execution of their father in Raqqa, edited like a professionally produced thriller, full of close-ups and tense, lengthy, atmospheric pauses before the trigger is finally pulled, there are no words to describe the horror, or the anger.
There’s also the unexpected issue of the European refugee problem. Scenes of a German backlash against foreigners show a group of neo-Nazis insisting that these Syrians go home while whipping up public support with finger-pointing and hate. They’re unable to (or more appropriately, don’t care to) tell the difference between a lone terrorist driving a truck through a Christmas market or a knife attack against a French policeman from those seeking sanctuary and needing refuge from a terrifying existence.
As with Cartel War, director Heineman brings to our doorstep something horrendous seen usually as an occurrence happening somewhere else. It’s delivered with remarkable clarity. The center of City of Ghosts may be the story of these journalists, but the film also serves as an illustration to the issue of Syria as a whole; a subject that may seem too complicated to fully grasp on the news but is here given perspective that should undoubtedly haunt. We should be shocked, and Heineman makes sure that we are. The documentary deals with the subject without hiding the horror; the images hold nothing back. What you’ll see is truly the stuff of nightmares, and Heineman makes it personal.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 90 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)