To read more coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, go here.
City of Ghosts was always going to be an achingly relevant plea for help and compassion in today’s world, but recent events have made it more urgent than ever.
The documentary follows a group of Syrian refugees who first became activists in the fight to oust Assad from leadership in the Arab Spring, then began a far more dangerous fight after ISIS came in, took over, and effectively isolated the country from the rest of the world. As Syria sank into chaos, with bloodshed and daily atrocities becoming the new norm, the group started the resistance movement Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), and vowed to document what was happening.
But fighting people like ISIS is bound to have a price, and the men who comprised RBSS were quick to find just how steep it was, even after they fled the country. They also discovered that they weren’t the only ones who were going to pay it. Stories of friends and colleagues being executed for daring to speak out against evil are heartbreaking enough, but it’s even more appalling when they relate how ISIS decided to attack RBSS through their loved ones by executing any family members they could track down.
Director Matthew Heineman shows his audience the same amount of mercy as he did in his previous doc Cartel Land, which is to say, none. He chillingly uses execution videos to great and horrific effect, just in case we somehow didn’t already know what his subjects are up against. True, stories of journalists who risk everything to get the story are nothing new. But fleeing generally means finding a place of relative safety. The men under discussion have none. Many of them have found sanctuary in Germany, but they’re essentially living their lives on the run, with the knowledge that ISIS is not only tracking their every move, but posting their information online and calling for their assassination.
Heineman seems to have gotten closer than usual to his subjects, because a righteous anger on their behalf flows through City of Ghosts. Anger that ISIS was allowed to grow from a small group loudly proclaiming their beliefs in primitive YouTube videos into a destructive force with a powerful propaganda machine that channeled modern Hollywood effects and sensibilities to further their horrific agenda. Anger at the state of Syria today, and how children are being recruited so a legacy of violence and fear is passed on to a new generation. There is also downright fury at how many are responding to the plight of refugees, with footage of jingoistic, far-right parties in Germany literally putting their ignorance and hatred of Muslims on parade, along with the very emotional disbelief of many Syrians at being associated with the very people who forced them to flee their countries and their homes. It’s an unsettling portrait of a moment where some of the ugliest chapters in history seem on the verge of repeating themselves, and not just in Germany.
With his subjects fighting a war on so many fronts, it’s hard to really blame Heineman for such anger. If there is any hope to be found, it’s in the ardent belief shared by RBSS members about the pen being mightier than the sword. RBSS hasn’t caused so much trouble for such a powerful terrorist group by dropping bombs, but by simply telling the truth. As such, RBSS isn’t just advocating against ISIS, but against our current way of thinking, which helped make ISIS and the terrorist groups that came before.
However, Heineman is less forgivable when he veers away from his subjects. Facts of just how ISIS came to be are few and far between, as is life in Syria before the trouble started. RBSS members practically present it as a paradise as they talk about how beautiful their lives were before, which is to be expected. Heineman could stand to follow their lead a little less. But then, he knows that RBSS isn’t continuing to fight purely out of nobility. They may be attending galas where they receive the highest awards for their achievements, but as one group member grimly acknowledges, if they don’t win the fight, ISIS will kill them all.