Matt Heineman’s “City of Ghosts,” debuting this weekend, tells the story of a group of citizen journalists in Raqqa, Syria, who took great personal risk to capture the atrocities and hypocrisy of ISIS after the Islamic state captured the city.
The journalists — whose group is called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently — fled to Turkey and then Germany, but continued gathering images from the city from a number of sources. While no longer in Syria, members of the group are still targets of ISIS propaganda, and have lived in “safe houses” to keep secret their location.
One of group’s co-founders, Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza, tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” that a central concern now is that tens of thousands of civilians are still trapped in Raqqa.
“The situation is complicated,” Aziz says. “People have been suffering all the time, especially from the air strikes. The international coalition air strikes led by the U.S. have killed more civilians this year than ISIS. So right now it is not only ISIS — also the airstrikes.”
Heineman said that he first heard about the organization while he was promoting his last movie, the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land,” and read an article by New Yorker editor David Remnick.
“I reached out to the guys and about a week later I started filming,” he said.
A key to winning their trust was a simple matter of commitment.
“The types of films I am trying to make and continue to make are very personal, intimate films, and that intimacy is key,” Heineman says. “That happens in a number of different ways: one, being very transparent with my intentions, and two, with time. I don’t just sort of fly in and fly out for a day. I spent weeks and weeks and weeks with these guys, and getting to know them and gaining their trust and becoming part of the fabric of their daily lives.”
Aziz adds that “for us it was so hard for us to decide that yes, we will make the movie, for safety reasons, but then at the same time, we realized the movie would help us get the message out and the main reason we started our organization.” Eventually, he says, “the cameras started to be a part of our life” and “we opened our hearts, minds to him and we started telling our story.”
Climate Change, in Real Time
The recent news that a Delaware-sized chunk of ice broke off of Antarctica is the latest image of the alarming melt driven by climate change. In 2012, director Jeff Orlowski captured similar images in his feature “Chasing Ice.” His followup, Netflix’s “Chasing Coral,” documents a lesser-known aspect of global warming — the devastation of coral ecosystems.
On the latest “PopPolitics,” Orlowski talks about how he set out to do the project and why he was so alarmed by what they saw. In 2016, 29% of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef died, attributed to the rise in the ocean temperature.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety‘s Ted Johnson, airs from 2-3 p.m. ET/11-noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It is also available on demand.