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
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

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