City Of Ghosts


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

City of Ghosts - with unprecedented access, this documentary follows the extraordinary journey of "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" — a group of anonymous citizen journalists who banded together after their homeland was overtaken by ISIS — as they risk their lives to stand up against one of the greatest evils in the world today.
"Heineman's film inevitably includes some tough-to-watch footage but he recognises the power in not always showing death." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

There has, rightly, been a lot of talk of the heroism of The White Helmets recently, with Orlando von Einsiedel's short documentary of the same name taking home an Oscar and Last Men In Aleppo rightfully garnering praise at Sundance.

Matthew Heineman's film - which also screened at Sundance - puts the focus on another, equally important group of unsung heroes, the citizen journalists who risk their lives daily to report on what is happening within the war-torn country. In the case of those reporting for non-violent activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, it is not just atrocities committed by President Bashar al-Assad that they want to expose, but the equally horrific treatment of the civilians by extremist members of the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/Daesh).

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In 2013, Raqqa - the sixth largest city in Syria - succeeded in overcoming Assad's forces. Fast-forward a few months and IS arrived. At first their propaganda machine ensured they were welcomed by the locals but it wasn't long before the extremists' true colours began to show in terms of violence and oppression as they declared the city the capital of their caliphate. Horrified by the situation in their home city, locals continued to record footage on mobile phones and produce stories about what was happening. More than that, Heineman shows how they set about finding ways to fight the finely honed IS propaganda machine on the ground, in a bid to stop the hearts and minds of the populace, and in particular, children, being won over by their hate preaching.

Heineman's film inevitably includes some tough-to-watch footage but he recognises the power in not always showing death - something that documentary Cries From Syria forgets. We don't need to see a bullet fired to know that the strings of orange-suited men we see are soon to be victims and Heineman's good editing of footage captured by journalists on the ground shows just how prevalent - and essentially random - the violence is.

He keeps his documentary personal by zooming in on some of the journalists involved, many of whom have now fled to Turkey and beyond. Watching two of the men look at footage of their father's execution tells us everything we need to know about the lengths IS will go to in order to 'punish' those who stand against them and the bravery of those who resist. Heineman also notes how the spectre of Syria continues to loom large in their lives, showing how they can be targeted even after having left the country. "You start hoping to die from old age," says one.

It's hard to know what is the most chilling - the indiscriminate deaths in Raqqa, the propaganda footage from IS, which has become as slick and well-produced as an Ministry of Defence recruitment advert, or the sickening and irrational hate of neo-Nazis who we see gathered in Germany to confront those refugees lucky enough to make it out alive. Heineman and the powerful footage captured by RBBSS, remind us that the deaths aren't just news statistics, each one carries a human face.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2017
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The citizen journalists risking their lives to report on atrocities within in Syria.
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Director: Matthew Heineman

Year: 2017

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

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Black Code
Last Men In Aleppo