DI­REC­TOR Matthew Heine­man

PLOT A doc­u­men­tary fol­low­ing the Syr­ian rebels known as RBSS (Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently), who or­ches­trate an anti-isis cam­paign dis­tribut­ing in­for­ma­tion from en­emy ter­ri­tory at great per­sonal risk.


im­agery, this doc­u­men­tary from Car­tel Land di­rec­tor Matthew Heine­man also has a deep sad­ness and com­pas­sion at its core. This is an im­por­tant film that con­firms Heine­man’s po­si­tion as one of Amer­ica’s finest doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers — and he’s still only 33.

Aside from its ap­petite for ex­treme bru­tal­ity, one of the most re­mark­able things about ISIS is its slick me­dia operation. Much has been made of the Hol­ly­wood-style pro­duc­tion val­ues of their snuff pro­pa­ganda, but the aes­thetic is far more along the lines of Call Of Duty cut scenes — savvy, given the alien­ated young men they aim for.

In op­po­si­tion, RBSS, a group of ac­tivists who now live in ex­ile from Syria, have built up a net­work of cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists in ISIS cap­i­tal Raqqa who use en­crypted sig­nals to get videos, pho­tos and news out to the world. We fol­low four ac­tivist re­porters — who are up against thou­sands of ji­hadis and their sup­port­ers — over a num­ber of months as they are forced to flee Turkey for safety via a suc­ces­sion of Ger­man safe houses and an in­cred­i­ble, in­con­gru­ous awards do in New York.

Coun­ter­ing the hype that ISIS spread about their caliphate as a flour­ish­ing statelet of the­o­log­i­cal pu­rity, the footage RBSS cir­cu­lates re­veals a night­mar­ish world of pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions (in­clud­ing cru­ci­fix­ions), ab­ject poverty and hunger, and the in­doc­tri­na­tion of the young.

In a film full of graphic footage it’s this brain­wash­ing that stands out. A scene of a child aged about four years old in full com­bat garb mer­rily be­head­ing a teddy bear is more un­set­tling than any hor­ror movie — and that’s in the mid­dle of a char­nel house of a film.

City Of Ghosts isn’t only about how re­volt­ing ISIS’ meth­ods are. This is some­thing that we al­ready know — and if you haven’t seen any footage of their atroc­i­ties, maybe don’t Google it. Sadly, the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of view­ing fright­ened men in or­ange jump­suits with mo­ments to live will be one of ISIS’ last­ing lega­cies. In­stead, be­yond the atroc­ity mon­tages, this is one of the most mov­ing por­traits of real-life courage you’ll ever see. Jour­nal­ism may give it­self a bad name in some quar­ters, but the RBSS re­porters high­lighted here are the real deal, putting their lives on the line in a way few oth­ers have been will­ing (or, to be fair, able) to do.

The threats are real, too: two of their num­ber were killed in 2015, one in the sup­pos­edly ‘safe’ en­vi­rons of Turkey. In one par­tic­u­larly chill­ing mo­ment, two mem­bers watch a video of their own fa­ther’s ex­e­cu­tion.

Shar­ing anx­ious con­ver­sa­tions with Syr­ian con­tacts over scratchy con­nec­tions, their operation is small, ded­i­cated and to­tally with­out bom­bast. There is lit­tle of the speechi­fy­ing about epochal evil that West­ern jour­nal­ists might suc­cumb to, in­stead a quiet pro­fes­sion­al­ism that’s quite as­tound­ing in the face of such ex­trem­ity. They can be en­dear­ingly goofy, too, spend­ing one scene mar­vel­ling at Ber­lin’s sex shops.

In the film’s clos­ing mo­ments, the cost of their brav­ery be­comes clear. After re­flect­ing on how few of their sources are likely to sur­vive, one mem­ber has a panic at­tack, his body shak­ing un­con­trol­lably with guilt and fear for those he left be­hind, Heine­man’s cam­era star­ing at his al­most to­tal col­lapse. If the catas­tro­phe of the Syr­ian con­flict could be con­densed into a sin­gle mo­ment, it’s this — and it’s un­for­get­table.

VERDICT City Of Ghosts wears three hats with aplomb — a sum­ma­tion of the tragedy that’s be­fallen Syria, how hor­ror can be re­sisted with just lap­tops, phones and courage, and the im­por­tance of shin­ing a light into the darker cor­ners of the world.

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