A frag­mented study of Is­lamic State tyranny

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE


Di­rected by Matthew Heine­man. Club, limited re­lease, 92 min Matthew Heine­man has moved on from Car­tel Land, his grip­ping study of Mex­i­can drug wars, to an ex­am­i­na­tion of the cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists bravely stand­ing up to Is­lamic State in the Syr­ian city of Raqqa.

The award-win­ning move­ment known as Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Si­lently (RBSS) has worked hard to coun­ter­act the stream of pro­pa­ganda com­ing from the self-pro­claimed caliphate. Its re­ward has been per­se­cu­tion and ex­ile. Its role has evolved as the tyranny grew.

It be­gan by doc­u­ment­ing the ar­rival of Is­lamic State forces and then moved on to re­port­ing the vi­cious re­tal­i­a­tion against any counter-in­sur­gency. Bod­ies are sus­pended in busy shop­ping streets. Dis­senters are ex­e­cuted in pub­lic. Its footage of­fers ev­i­dence of the re­porters’ bravery.

City of Ghosts stands as a worth­while trib­ute to re­mark­able people. But it has lit­tle of the propul­sive power of Car­tel

Land. Heine­man does not be­gin his story un­til the men have left Syria for Turkey and, as a re­sult, much in­for­ma­tion is re­lated sec­ond-hand. Some ten­sion is in­jected into pro­ceed­ings as – now work­ing from safe houses in Ger­many – they learn that they are un­der con­stant dan­ger. But too much of the film is taken up with anx­ious chat­ter.

The film is at its best (and its most ter­ri­fy­ing) when re­lay­ing the footage from RBSS. Heine­man has to tread a dif­fi­cult line here. He needs to con­vey the hor­ror, but too many shots of too many ap­palling slaugh­ters would risk turn­ing this doc­u­men­tary into a snuff movie.

He gets the bal­ance about right. There is a chilling sense of the un­speak­ably hor­ri­ble play­ing out amid the ev­ery­day busi­ness of or­di­nary cit­i­zens.

City of Ghosts sticks close to its sub­jects and hears some ter­ri­ble news. At least one se­nior fig­ure is killed in the progress of the film. As they are shel­ter­ing in Ger­many, they rub up against a neo-Nazi protest. Fear is ev­ery­where.

There are the mak­ings of a grip­ping story in these el­e­ments. But some­how City of

Ghosts never quite comes to­gether. It feels as if the cor­rect sub­ject had been ap­proached from the wrong an­gle. Still, the pic­ture should send a few view­ers in search of the sub­jects’ ad­mirable work.

Fear is ev­ery­where: The film is at its best (and its most ter­ri­fy­ing) when re­lay­ing the footage from the Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Si­lently move­ment

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