FILM: This is what heroic jour­nal­ism looks like

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ann Hor­na­day IFC Films-Ama­zon Stu­dios

★★★★ Drama. Rated R. In Englis­hand Ara­bic with sub­ti­tles. 91 min­utes.

Amer­i­can au­di­ences have en­joyed a re­cent spate of doc­u­men­taries that take us be­yond head­lines and just-the-facts news sto­ries about the Is­lamic State, Iraq and Syria, and that give us, in­stead, a glimpse of the people whose lives have been so vi­ciously up­ended by mil­i­tancy’s rise in the Mid­dle East.

Last week, it was “Nowhere to Hide,” of­fer­ing a can­did por­trait of the dec­i­ma­tion of Jalawla, Iraq, through the eyes of a gen­tle-na­tured medic and fam­ily man. This week, it’s “City of Ghosts,” pro­vid­ing an apt book­end chron­i­cling the heroic ef­forts of cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists in Raqqa, Syria, as they at­tempt to doc­u­ment the car­nage that the Is­lamic State has wreaked on their once-cos­mopoli­tan city.

In 2014, when the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS, in­vaded Syria, a group of enterprising teach­ers, stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­als be­gan film­ing the atroc­i­ties per­formed by the group, which in­cluded pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions and tor­ture. Be­cause the in­ter­na­tional press was largely ig­nor­ing what was hap­pen­ing in Raqqa, the anony­mous ac­tivists be­gan to dis­sem­i­nate their im­ages via so­cial me­dia, even­tu­ally be­com­ing known as the un­der­cover group Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Si­lently (RBSS).

As the Syria story heated up, RBSS’s elec­tronic mis­sives be­came more wide­spread in the main­stream me­dia, while the Is­lamic State honed its own on­ceprim­i­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­niques into slick videos bor­row­ing pro­duc­tion val­ues and story beats from com­puter games and Hol­ly­wood movies. “City of Ghosts” chron­i­cles that his­tory, and, when one of RBSS’ lead­ers is sud­denly killed, the sub­se­quent es­cape of sev­eral mem­bers to Turkey and Ger­many. In ex­ile, they des­per­ately try to protect their sources back home while mak­ing sure the sto­ries of Raqqa — and Syria at large — reach a wider au­di­ence, bat­tling psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional trauma while be­com­ing the toasts of West­ern hu­man rights and free-press ad­vo­cates.

Di­rected by Matthew Heine­man with breath­tak­ing ac­cess and ur­gency, “City of Ghosts” pos­sesses the same taut, cin­e­mavérité en­ergy as his pre­vi­ous film “Car­tel Land.” Like that movie, this is a work of nerve and im­me­di­acy, with the film­maker gain­ing un­prece­dented prox­im­ity to the life-threat­en­ing events he’s record­ing. There are mo­ments when the film plays like a sober­ingly real-life in­ter­na­tional thriller.

As heroic and im­por­tant as RBSS’ ac­tivism is, how­ever, it’s the qui­eter mo­ments of per­sonal re­flec­tion that linger most, as when one of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s founders suc­cumbs to a fit of un­con­trol­lable shak­ing, his body pro­cess­ing the grief and loss that he has so as­sid­u­ously tried to keep at bay while lit­er­ally try­ing to save his coun­try. As Amer­i­cans con­tinue to de­bate about a com­pul­sively tweet­ing pres­i­dent, strict im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies and ef­forts to ma­nip­u­late an of­ten eas­ily dis­tracted me­dia, “City of Ghosts” pro­vides a grim re­minder of what jour­nal­ism should look like, and why its stakes are lit­er­ally life and death.

A scene from “City of Ghosts.”

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