This ain’t that great a review. I don’t have much to say here aside from that City of Ghosts is a brilliant, amazing film and you should totally all see it. If you’d like to read a few hundred bad words of me trying to explain it, go right ahead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Y’all know how D Trump likes to run his mouth about the ‘fake news’ when he the one peddling all his bullcrap? You know who else does that? Literally ISIS. Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts is about the real citizen journalists of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) who are punching the holes in their facade.
ISIS invaded the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2014, killed any brave enough to oppose them, razed the city’s Shia mosques and Christian churches and declared it their de-facto head of state. As a part of this they cut the residents of the city off from the outside world, they were no longer free to leave the city, without permission outsiders were forbidden to enter. The people who form RBSS saw what was happening to their city, they saw that ISIS’ abuse of its population was not being seen outside its walls.
They decided to report, they decided to investigate. If you see footage of Raqqa on the news, the public executions, oppressed population it’s probably come out of these guys. The film follows the site’s editorial staff, the ones who started it, who used to be maths teachers and students and who just want their town back. They live in Turkey now, the luckier ones managed to make it to Germany. You can only hope to remain anonymous so long.
They ran when their fellow reporters were being kidnapped, tortured and executed. When ISIS couldn’t get their hands on them, they turned to taking their families’ lives as retribution. Heineman lets us watch these videos, they are the grieving reporters say, why their fighting. Against a regime that would kill in this manner, and against a regime who makes a film of that killing all overproduced and dynamic in an attempt to make the horror seem attractive.
Like these some proper legit people. The ones who’re being stalked, threatened, who live in safehouses, move constantly, barely able to leave because some pro-ISIS figure has posted a picture of their door along with the suggestion that they’ll be executing whoever comes out. These ain’t empty threats neither over the running time a reporter not even part of their organisation, just one who had helped them in the past, is assassinated. Yet all these dudes can think is that at least they got out. They’ve got their anonymous sources inside the city to protect, and as the vice closes their work keeps getting more and more dangerous.
The film opens at the 2015 press freedom award in New York City, the one they win, while there we get to see these people dressed up all nice in suits, they get to have fun, they dance in a hotel room and smile. As much as the film a tale of the work and activism they all engage in, it presents the character studies of these lives. How each of them constructs a life around this work that seems to make it impossible. Like Aziz, the one dude who knows enough English to be their public speaker and his choice to live publicly, defiantly. Or Hamoud, preparing for the birth of his first child. Or Mohamad, fretting over how he may be putting his wife in danger.
It’s immaculately constructed, like his 2015 flick Cartel Land Heineman directs, produces, shoots, and co-edits the project. It’s a huge powerful flick, about people who rise up in dark moments, and about the forms that resistance can take. There some folks in this flick who can’t be much older than I am and I wonder.
It a film that asks how can you be doing better for the world. I hope I ain’t spoiling too much here but the film ends on a note that is strikingly similar to the ending of Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 joint The Act of Killing. I assume at this point it would have to be a deliberate reference. If these two films can end in the same place it is a shout, it is a roar that everyone else is not doing enough.
It is a hard-hitting, blunt, emotionally charged challenge that we should do more. Whatever we can.
City of Ghosts is currently screening in UK cinemas