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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

City of Ghosts documentary review: how to tell a story that some don’t want told

City of Ghosts green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A devastating portrait of Syrian citizen journalists, of the sacrifices they make to tell of ISIS occupation, and a cautionary tale for Western culture, too.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
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For years, the only news we’ve had out of the Syrian city of Raqqa — besieged, occupied, and cut off from the outside world by the so-called Islamic State — has come via a small group of incredibly brave, driven citizen journalists known collectively as “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS). Anonymous reporters, armed with little more than digital cameras and unreliable Internet connections, send their footage out to their partners in Turkey and Germany, who then distribute their dispatches to the rest of the planet via Facebook, Twitter, and their Web site, where they eventually find their way into the mainstream media.

There’s lots of their video from Raqqa in the absolutely devastating documentary City of Ghosts (a more aptly, hauntingly named film we will not get this year, I suspect). Some of it you may have seen on the evening news; some of it has never been seen before; all of it becomes a heartbreaking chronicle of innocents murdered in cruel and barbarous ways, and the attempted erasure of happy, modern living in favor of ISIS’s medieval brutality. (The ongoing liberation of the city by anti-ISIS forces, as reported by RBSS, isn’t sounding so wonderful either.) All of it serves as an irrefutable testament to the necessity of RBSS’s work.tweet Documentarian Matthew Heineman had intimate access to the small band of RBSS members in Europe, and he paints a distressing portrait of them as men suffering from separation from family and from their homes, grieving over all that they have lost, but driven by a shared passion to tell the story of Raqqa. They are former students and teachers, just ordinary Syrians compelled into extraordinary action by love of their city, their country, and plain human decency, now in hiding to escape threats by ISIS to kill them for daring to get the truth out.

Pay close attention to City of Ghosts: it could well provide lessons necessary in our future.

Heineman was nominated for an Oscar for his harrowing 2015 documentary Cartel Land, and this film is even more powerful, an enormously moving experience, deeply upsetting yet hugely inspiring.tweet The pen and the camera are indeed mightier than the sword, or the AK-47, and yes, freedom will out and information will out: they cannot, will not be stopped. But this is not a story only about Raqqa or only about the great sacrifices and courage of the RBSS members: it is one that we all must take as a cautionary tale. One RBSS member explains how the tyrants of ISIS came to power, by preying on the vulnerability of downtrodden people, by promising prosperity to those who have none. That vulnerability is not unique to the Middle East, and in fact sounds a lot like what is happening in places you and I know well. Pay close attention to City of Ghosts: it could well provide lessons necessary in our future.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.

green light 5 stars

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City of Ghosts (2017) | directed by Matthew Heineman
US/Can release: Jul 07 2017
UK/Ire release: Jul 21 2017 (VOD same day)

MPAA: rated R (for disturbing violent content, and for some language)
BBFC: rated 18 (strong images of real killings, dead bodies)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • halavana

    “That vulnerability is not unique to the Middle East, and in fact sounds a
    lot like what is happening in places you and I know well. Pay close
    attention to City of Ghosts: it could well provide lessons necessary in our future.”
    this caution can apply to everyone from the whole political spectrum.
    Gonna have to get this when it becomes available on dvd. probably won’t ever be in theaters here in the middle of nowhere. Thanks for the review.

  • Only one side of the political spectrum harasses journalists and attempts to discredit journalism.

  • halavana

    which journalist? all sides of the political spectrum attack journalists perceived as attacking their particular agenda and frequently forget that the Bill of Rights (at least in the US) covers the opposition as well. none of us can afford a blind spot in this matter.

  • RogerBW

    The side that’s in power at the time.

  • No, all sides do not “attack journalists.” Refuting stories is not “attacking.” Calling legitimate news outlets “fake news” is attacking. Not holding press briefings is attacking. Physically attacking journalists is, you know, attacking.

    You know what none of us can afford? False equivalency.

  • Barack Obama did not respond to *actual bullshit fake “news”* — like the whole birther nonsense — in a way that is even remotely in the same *universe* as how Trump responds to genuine authentic undisputed reporting about him and his actions. This is not a matter of “both sides do it.”

  • Danielm80

    Donald Trump’s treatment of the press is uniquely evil, and we should never forget that, or start to accept any of his misconduct as normal. But it’s important to remember that some of his abuses of power are possible because other politicians, including Barack Obama, created the framework for them:


  • Bluejay

    Somehow, though, I think Trump would probably have attacked the press no matter what his predecessors did. He’ll cite precedent if it suits his purposes, but when did lack of precedent ever stop him?

  • Yeah, that’s bad. What Trump is doing is *still* in a completely different universe.

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