I can only imagine that one of the hardest parts of being a documentary filmmaker is not letting the quality and importance of your footage be eclipsed by a lack of thematic focus or talent. Consider Bernard-Henri Lévy’s recent documentary Peshmerga. The film features footage of the eponymous Iraqi Kurdish fighters engaged in face-to-face combat with ISIL fighters. The filmmakers literally risked their lives for the film—one of the cameramen almost died when the jeep he was riding on hit a land mine. Yet the film was sabotaged by Lévy’s self-important, philosophizing narration that declared civilian-inhabited cities controlled by ISIS as “Cities of Evil” that must be destroyed.
Matthew Heineman must have found himself in a similar situation with City of Ghosts, a chilling documentary about a group of underground Syrian journalists known as “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS). These journalists risked their lives to document atrocities committed by ISIL in their hometown of Raqqa, one of the first cities the terrorist group captured which also serves as the de facto capital of their so-called Caliphate. RBSS were among the first journalists to leak footage of their terrorism. The group has two factions, an inside team in Raqqa and an outside team stationed in Turkey and Germany who transmit the material gathered by the inside team to the rest of the world. Members of both teams risk their lives every day, and many have paid the terrible cost. City of Ghosts pulls few punches, featuring uncensored footage of actual ISIL executions and decapitations covertly filmed by RBSS. During the production of the film, one of the team’s most prominent members received death threats accompanied by photos posted on social media of his front door. There isn’t a frame in this movie that somebody didn’t risk their lives for. But is City of Ghosts worthy of its subject?
My answer is yes. The film understands that it’s a film first and foremost about social media and journalists, not open warfare and soldiers. Heineman is fascinated by how ISIL used social media to create a brand that lured hundreds of thousands of radicalized youths from around the world into their ranks. It isn’t just that RBSS is fighting back, it’s that they’re fighting back with the same social media tools that helped ISIL gain so much power. Heineman goes to great lengths to depict RBSS’s elaborate methods of smuggling their material out of occupied Syria: short files are transmitted from secure computers all over Raqqa in short bursts—if they stayed online for too long they could get tracked and located by ISIL agents who rove the city in trucks set up to detect internet signals. Their inside agents have code names and use voice-modifying software even during phone calls.
But a curious thing happens in the last third of the film. As members of the outside team migrate to Germany to escape threats, the film slightly alters its focus towards the current refugee crisis in Europe and America. The displaced RBSS agents attend counter-protests against nationalist marches where people scream to kick refugees out of Germany, a point driven home the hardest during a single shot where a protestor walks by the agents while holding a cell phone with the words “FCK RFGS” written on its case. Thankfully, these changes happen organically; it never feels like we’re watching sequences from a different movie accidentally edited into this one. Instead, it’s just another symptom of the same problem: religious extremism.
City of Ghosts is a tough, difficult sit. But it might just prove invaluable, both as an anthropological document of nascent social media resistance and as a profile of undaunted journalistic courage.
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