The canniest and most overwhelming documentary to date about the ongoing Syrian civil war, Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts contrasts the story of a heroic group of citizen journalists with a grim view of the international community they desperately need to galvanize. The city of Raqqa, situated along the Euphrates River, was a hub for citizens seeking shelter from areas still under the control of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the wake of the 2012 Arab Spring movement. Mere months later, Raqqa was besieged and occupied by a then-nascent ISIS. Were it not for the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, our sense of ISIS’s aims, methods, and recruiting tactics would be far less complete.
Heineman’s film begins in Manhattan, where RBSS, a small collective of self-trained activists turned journalists, is being honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The room is full of merriment that turns to awkward sobriety whenever the journalists are greeted by a wealthy man in a tuxedo. The sense that the West is complicit in its meek response to the complex tangle of atrocities in Syria permeates the film, and Heineman confronts it with a bombardment of horrific imagery and persistent reminders that the members of RBSS live and work under the constant threat of assassination.
City of Ghosts focuses on a handful of the group’s two dozen or so members, all young men who were students and teachers before the 2012 protests began. Pre-Arab Spring Raqqa, under Assad’s thumb, is described in idyllic terms, which seems reductive until the film gets into the news reports that established RBSS as a vital news organization. Covertly filmed videos show a caravan of black cars waving black flags rolling into Raqqa, and subsequently after a string of horrors: public executions and beheadings, recruitment events, and societal restrictions that reduce the city to a disconnected, isolated breeding ground for those willing to pervert their faith in exchange for a depraved type of martyrdom. Comfort, for these journalists, is a relative notion, and RBSS’s success in documenting these events quickly puts them in ISIS’s crosshairs. Many of the group’s members decamp for Turkey and Germany while fostering new sources to capture news and video in Raqqa.
The film excels as it balances the journalists’ personal stories of loss, determination, and life under threat with what essentially becomes a media war. Heineman makes liberal use of ISIS propaganda footage, having the members of RBSS elucidate the terrorists’ use of video-game aesthetics and Hollywood editing techniques, which serve to glamorize a string of increasingly desperate recruitment tactics and suicide missions. Instead of protecting the viewer from this gruesome content, Heineman’s decision to have us watch the journalists watch this footage underlines the film’s moral imperative: It’s far more difficult to become numb to the terror after it’s seen through the eyes of those whose lives have been wrecked by it.
Heineman gradually broadens his focus, moving farther away from Raqqa as the journalists as they’re transitioned from one European safe house to another, tracked by ISIS with means that are alternately sophisticated and barbaric. Meanwhile, the film’s subjects face a mixture of sympathy and disdain from an increasingly polarized West, receiving protection from police and non-profit groups just as they confront a new form of violence from Europe’s burgeoning right-wing movements.
City of Ghosts’s welcome lack of explanatory titles and talking heads only hinders the film in its final act, as Heineman’s efforts to simultaneously stitch a few notes of perfunctory uplift alongside an elliptical dramatization of how ISIS’s campaign has infected global politics fall a bit flat. (According to a recent New York Times feature, there’s reluctant cause for hope in Raqqa, which is primed to be reclaimed by an American-led coalition.) Otherwise, the director’s apparently frank and intimate relationships with the RBSS’s heroic journalists help to sustain City of Ghosts’s undeniable urgency, which culminates in a final image of appropriate, irresolvable anguish.