When strong, personality-driven documentaries premiere at film festivals, you can count on one of the most pressing concerns in audience Q&As being the need to know what has happened to the subjects since filming wrapped. In the case of “City of Ghosts,” the question carries higher stakes than almost ever before, while also communicating how effectively “Cartel Land” director Matthew Heineman humanizes the key players in self-made ISIS-resistance movement Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). These courageous citizen journalists risk their lives every day to combat ISIS’ insidious propaganda and misinformation campaigns — which makes it all the more remarkable that Heineman is able to provide such intimate access to RBSS’ operations, now in exile abroad.
While world powers debate how to fight ISIS, a small group of Syrian rebels calling themselves RBSS — and who have rather ironically been labeled “terrorists” by the Muslim extremists who have taken control of their hometown — have waged a nonviolent campaign for peace, recognizing information as the most effective weapon in their own struggle. Initially, armed with video cameras, they documented the arrival of and swift takeover by ISIS forces in Raqqa, filming demonstrations in the city’s Freedom Square that led to grisly public executions.
Such snuff footage is extremely difficult to watch, but increasingly consistent with the grim new norm in Middle East coverage, where real killings are captured live on camera. In fact, as Heineman demonstrates via chilling examples, ISIS has become quite savvy about shaping its own image. By using sophisticated Hollywood techniques in its intimidation and recruitment videos (including those aimed at children), Raqqa’s new occupying power has made it all the more essential that some force emerge to document the other side, which is where RBSS proves so vital, depicting just how miserable conditions truly are in the city.
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By the time Heineman catches up with the group, they have already fled Syria to neighboring Turkey, where they must continue their dissent via sources still living in Raqqa. Though the Syria situation is every bit as hot as the drug war the director captured in “Cartel Land,” “City of Ghosts” doesn’t offer the same embedded sense of danger: Heineman accompanies the RBSS journalists to international conferences and panels, where they receive awards, and he hunkers down with them in German safe houses where police notices insist that they move constantly, as fresh tips suggest the ongoing risk to their lives. But somehow, none of this feels as urgent as the work RBSS themselves are doing — much as documentaries about war photographers inevitably pale by comparison to their subjects’ own work.
It’s not that Heineman adds to the conversation so much as that he lends a powerful megaphone to RBSS’ cause, assembling and re-editing some of their greatest hits (most of which can be found on their Facebook page, though Heineman reportedly also incorporates never-before-shared RBSS footage as well) into gut-punch montages — montages that rank among the most upsetting of any seen in contemporary documentaries. As if it weren’t tough enough to watch a single execution, Heineman supplies sequences in which multiple beheadings are strung together or, even more upsettingly, where ISIS’ string of high-profile European attacks are cut together like some sort of career-achievement reel for the sinister new caliphate.
RBSS reports make it clear that conditions in Raqqa are abominable, with significant segments of town reduced to rubble and normal citizens forced to queue up for meager food rations. And yet, knowing what we now do about life under Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, there’s something disingenuous about the idyllic “before” image RBSS offers: “For us, life was beautiful,” they say over footage of joyful marriage ceremonies and blissful kids diving into the river, somehow overlooking the circumstances that led to the country’s “cry for freedom.”
The situation in Syria is far too complicated to be so easily reduced: Neither ISIS nor Assad offers a suitable government for the country, and yet, were it not for the way that ISIS’ proactive attacks on so-called infidels abroad have touched France, Germany, and America, it’s doubtful that the West would be paying RBSS’ message much mind. As the film’s subjects warn, “When one group falls, another will rise up in its place” — which, of course, has been the cruel lesson of American intervention in the Middle East over the past decades, as each new regime seems more pernicious than the last.
The solution in “City of Ghosts” is to concentrate on the people who comprise RBSS: There’s editor-in-chief Naji Jerf, who is murdered during the course of the film — just one of several casualties struck close to the group’s core. Footage taken from a checkpoint stop accompanies news of group member Moutaz’s arrest and execution. At one point, cameraman Hamoud and his brother Hassan receive news that ISIS is taking out its vengeance on members of their family not directly involved in RBSS.
The group continues at great personal risk, and yet, as Heineman’s original footage reveals, there’s more to their refugee status in Europe than cocktail parties and awards. In Berlin, they take a stand against a group of anti-immigration neo-Nazis, trying to reason with German nationalists seemingly incapable of distinguishing between the terrorists who drove a truck through a crowded Christmas market and the brave crusaders doing their part to fight ISIS from afar. What “City of Ghosts” does best is to humanize those who’ve suffered most from the conflict in Syria, educating us through both outrage and compassion.