city of ghosts


Raqqa is a city in Syria along the Euphrates River that came under the control of the jihadist militant group ISIS in 2014. We know that the group is committing numerous war crimes in the city. They torture and execute their enemies and display the victims as a warning to others in the city. The group has banned all media in the city besides what they themselves communicate to the people. So how do we know about these atrocities when the city has been overrun by terrorists and brought under their strict control? It is due to the valiant efforts of a citizen journalist group: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), among many others. These journalists operate inside and outside the city; they film and document the actions of ISIS and publish them worldwide. They are the subject of Matthew Heineman’s heart-breaking and harrowing new documentary City of Ghosts.

The film follows three of the founding members of RBSS: Aziz, the group’s main spokesman, Mohammed, who operates as one of the main reporters and Hamoud, who is a cameraman and manages RBSS’s website. The film makes it clear that before the ISIS occupation of Raqqa these people lived relatively normal lives in their home city of Raqqa. Aziz was a teenager who spent, as he puts it, most of his time partying and causing trouble. Mohammed was a math teacher and only took to reporting and journalism amid the Syrian Civil War. Hamoud spent most of his time filming things around him and so he naturally took to filming the events occurring in Raqqa during the Civil War and subsequently the occupation by the Islamic State. This emphasis on the normality of the leaders of the group is important. These citizens turned fugitive journalists are risking their lives by challenging ISIS and they are no different from you or me; any of us can become heroes.

Heineman edits the documentary flawlessly, combining and contrasting the footage of RBSS with the propaganda tapes of ISIS. He exposes the horrific truth of ISIS activities while also showcasing the deceitful recruitment tapes of the terrorist group. The director punctuates scenes of the groups’ leaders with news reports which they provided the material for; Heineman shows the real world effect that the group has had even if we were unaware of who provided the news. He also does not hold back on the graphic images of the executions and tortures that either ISIS release online to the public or is leaked to the world by RBSS; Heineman does not censor the footage. These ever shifting perspectives helps make the documentary flow from scene to scene and makes it easier for the audience to engage which is helpful when the subject matter is as heavy as the one presented in this film. It is by no means easy to watch the horror in Raqqa or view the revenge that ISIS takes on the members of RBSS, but the skilful filmmaking of Heineman allows the audience a chance to digest before becoming overwhelmed with despair.

The tagline for City of Ghosts reads, “Our words are mightier than their weapons”. There is hope in that statement as there is hope in this film. The members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently are true heroes, Heineman’s documentary makes that clear. These journalists are trying to restore freedom and peace to their nation and their home. Heineman creates an engaging cinematic experience about the efforts of this group, clearly displaying with sympathy their tragedy, highlighting both the risk and importance of their work.