Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts is a tribute to the bravery of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a collective of Syrian citizen journalists who banded together in 2014 to chronicle the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their country. In fact, the documentary begins with footage of members of the group about to accept the International Press Freedom Award in New York, which gives the viewer an indication of the filmmaker’s admiring view of the group. But Heineman isn’t just interested in hero worship.
The documentary’s first half offers a brief history of the political situation in Syria, specifically the burst of revolutionary anti-government fervor during the Arab Spring in 2011 that eventually paved the way for ISIS to take over the country and wage their campaign of terror against their own people and other Middle Eastern nations. This recent history is recounted through footage captured and posted on social media by RBSS members, and much of it is harrowing, with images of violence and death presented in uncensored form. The RBSS members’ rough videos stands in stark contrast to ISIS’s own increasingly slick propaganda videos, which Heineman also presents to demonstrate just how much of ISIS’s fight is media-based.
City of Ghosts’s second half turns its focus onto the struggles of individual RBSS members to try to stay alive and maintain hope. Four of them, including official spokesman Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza, have fled Syria because of how dangerous life has become there—but they aren’t much safer in Turkey, where they first decamped, and then Germany, where they currently reside in an undisclosed location. Much of the action Heineman captures, then, is of these particular RBSS members covertly contacting the citizen journalists still in Syria, searching websites for fresh news, and just generally trying to adjust to life on the run—in other words, a far cry from the immediacy of the video footage they captured while still in their home country.
And yet, it’s the sense of isolation, helplessness, and even regret these people feel that makes this portion of City of Ghosts so affecting. Heineman’s choice of an ending for his film is devastating: a sequence in which Aziz, having been offered protection by the German police after ISIS has placed a call for his head, tries to balance his desire to stay alive with his own survivor’s guilt. All of this is conveyed simply through anguished noises he makes and powerful grimaces on his face rather than through words—and then Heineman cuts to black, leaving us with his ambivalence. More than just a tribute to RBSS’s bravery, City of Ghosts works as a sobering and, in its own way, inspiring look at the sacrifices they’re making—to their lives, to their well-being—in order to bring the world the truth about life in Syria under the ISIS regime.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 19—30.