Track­ing a band of bold ci­ti­zen jour­nal­ists

Matthew Heine­man’s ‘City of Ghosts’ chron­i­cles a Syr­ian group’s ef­forts to rise up against the Is­lamic State — with pens and cam­eras

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN michael.osul­li­van@wash­post.com

Matthew Heine­man has, at an age when most film­mak­ers are just get­ting started, al­ready made a deep dent in the doc­u­men­tary world. Af­ter break­ing out in 2012 with “Es­cape Fire: The Fight to Res­cue Amer­i­can Health­care” — a film he co-di­rected with Su­san Froemke and that was nom­i­nated for a Grand Jury prize at Sun­dance — the 34-year-old film­maker fol­lowed up with a one-two punch: the Os­car-nom­i­nated drug doc­u­men­tary “Car­tel Land” in 2015, and his lat­est film, “City of Ghosts,” which is al­ready gar­ner­ing buzz in ad­vance of next year’s nom­i­na­tions.

As with his pre­vi­ous, highly top­i­cal work, the of-the-mo­ment sub­ject of “Ghosts” is the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS — or, rather, a band of ci­ti­zen jour­nal­ists from the Syr­ian city of Raqqa who have de­fied death threats and as­sas­si­na­tions to get the news out of the Is­lamic State’s cap­i­tal via a Web por­tal called Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently. (In 2015, RBSS was given the In­ter­na­tional Press Free­dom Award by the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists.) Heine­man phoned from New York, where he lives, to talk about the some­times dan­ger­ous, al­ways com­pli­cated and vi­tal na­ture of his work.

Q: Your last three fea­ture films have been about our bro­ken health-care sys­tem, Mex­i­can drug car­tels and Syr­ian re­sis­tance to rad­i­cal Is­lam. Why are you drawn to such in­tractable prob­lems, where noth­ing ever seems to change? A: With all three of these top­ics, it’s so easy to be hope­less. As Amer­i­cans, we’re pro­grammed to want a sil­ver bul­let: You pull a lever, and then ev­ery­thing gets fixed. But it’s very hard to fig­ure out where that lever is. One of my goals in mak­ing all three of these films — and I hadn’t fully thought through this be­fore you asked the ques­tion — is that I find hope and op­ti­mism in in­di­vid­u­als who are fight­ing for change. In the case of “Car­tel Land,” it’s every­day cit­i­zens rising up to fight the evil Mex­i­can drug car­tels, with guns and with vi­o­lence. In “City of Ghosts,” it’s every­day cit­i­zens rising up to fight against the evil of ISIS — with pens and cam­eras.

Q: You once wanted to be a his­tory teacher so that you could ef­fect change by learn­ing from the past. Do you in­clude your­self — and the films you make — as part of the fight for change? A: Too of­ten, we rely on other peo­ple — whether it be politi­cians or in­sti­tu­tions — to ef­fect change. While all three of these films are quote-un­quote po­lit­i­cal in na­ture, I’ve tried to make them as apo­lit­i­cal — as hu­man — as pos­si­ble. If you’re go­ing to see “City of Ghosts” be­cause you want to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing about the Syr­ian con­flict and how to fix it, then it’s the wrong film to see.

Q: The last footage in the film is from late 2016. How have things changed in Raqqa since then, as the U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces be­gin their push to oust ISIS? A: It has changed a lot, to some de­gree. And to some de­gree, it hasn’t changed at all. As [RBSS spokesman Ab­del Aziz al-Hamza] says in the film, “ISIS is an idea.” This idea will not be beaten with guns or bombs or troops. This idea has been in­doc­tri­nated into a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren and teenagers. This idea has been in­doc­tri­nated to peo­ple all across the world.

Q: One of the most dis­turb­ing scenes in the film fea­tures the so­called Caliphate Cubs — ISIS’s child trainees — one of whom is shown be­head­ing a teddy bear, al­though they have done worse. How do you com­bat an idea? A: In the early days, they would graf­fiti walls with anti-ISIS slo­gans, put up posters, dis­pelling the myths of what was hap­pen­ing, cre­ate an anti-ISIS magazine with a sim­i­lar name to an ISIS magazine, all tar­geted at chil­dren. Google has an ini­tia­tive called Jig­saw that is try­ing to fight ISIS with the Google search en­gine. Two or three years ago, if you searched, “How to join ISIS,” it would take you less than a minute to find out how to join, how to build a bomb. Now, they’ve re­verse-en­gi­neered the search so that it’s very dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to find this con­tent.

Q: When mak­ing “Car­tel Land,” you of­ten put your­self in harm’s way, rid­ing along in a bul­let­proof vest with armed vig­i­lantes. But here you are — ar­guably — putting oth­ers at risk by pro­fil­ing the mem­bers of RBSS in a way that could in­crease the risk of at­tack by ISIS. Can you talk about the pre­cau­tions you took?

A: I can talk vaguely about that. This is a con­ver­sa­tion that we had from the very begin­ning, even be­fore we started film­ing. When I first sat down with RBSS, we talked about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of mak­ing the film, and ob­vi­ously the ram­i­fi­ca­tions af­ter the film comes out. Their risk pro­file will in­crease. The guys de­cided that they wanted to come out from be­hind the ve­neer of so­cial me­dia, to show their faces, to show they’re real peo­ple, that they’re from Raqqa, that they’re mod­er­ate Mus­lim men. While we were film­ing, we were in­cred­i­bly con­scious of how, when, where and what we filmed, al­ways en­crypt­ing our footage, never putting any­thing on­line. In post­pro­duc­tion and edit­ing, we gave them the op­por­tu­nity to see the film, to make sure that we would not show some­thing that would put them in dan­ger.

Q: For ex­am­ple, when you show safe houses in Ger­many and Turkey, where some of these men are now in ex­ile, do you make sure not to in­clude iden­ti­fy­ing de­tails about lo­ca­tion?

A: Yes.

Q: How do you see the state of jour­nal­ism around the world, given that it is un­der fire even in the U. S.?

A: The amount of money that’s be­ing put into long-form in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism has be­come less and less. There’s less money in the for­eign bu­reaus of tra­di­tional me­dia. We’re re­ly­ing more and more on ci­ti­zen jour­nal­ists to shine light on these re­mote cor­ners of the world. The film is many things to me, but it’s par­tially an homage to jour­nal­ism.

Q: You’ve spo­ken about the al­lure of the nim­ble, stripped-down style of film­mak­ing you adopted in “Car­tel Land” and “City of Ghosts” — some­thing you call “one-man-band­ing.” What does this mean for your movies go­ing for­ward?

A: It’s not a to­tally sus­tain­able way of hav­ing a life, so it’s not some­thing I can do for­ever, or with ev­ery film. It al­lows me to get very in­ti­mate footage, to break down bar­ri­ers, to get ex­traor­di­nar­ily per­sonal scenes. It’s not he­li­copter­ing in and out and say­ing, “Can I hang out with you?” It’s be­com­ing part of the fab­ric of the daily lives of my char­ac­ters. De­spite what any­one says to the con­trary, hav­ing a big boom mic hang­ing in your face changes the dy­namic. My fa­vorite way of mak­ing films — and what has al­lowed me to get key scenes in” Car­tel Land” and “City of Ghosts” — has been when I’ve been able to op­er­ate alone.

Q: Hamoud, the RBSS cam­era­man, calls the cam­era a weapon. Is that true for your cam­era as well?

A: Pro­pa­ganda is one of the most evil tools that hu­man be­ings use against each other. It de­fends wars, prop­a­gates lies, dis­sem­i­nates fear. One of the things the film is about is the use of me­dia as a weapon: this war of pro­pa­ganda be­tween RBSS on one side and ISIS — with its slick Hol­ly­wood-style pro­duc­tions — on the other. My cam­era, in telling the story, be­comes part of the nar­ra­tive, but I gen­er­ally don’t like to in­sert my­self. You don’t hear me ask ques­tions. You don’t feel my pres­ence. Yet there’s no ques­tion that films like these — and the film­maker — are part of the nar­ra­tive as well.

Q: What is your hope that peo­ple will take away from “City of Ghosts”?

A: One of the beau­ties of doc­u­men­tary is that it al­lows you to meet char­ac­ters you wouldn’t or­di­nar­ily meet. It takes you to places you wouldn’t oth­er­wise be al­lowed to go. I’ll never for­get when we heard the film was go­ing to Sun­dance. It was right around when we were fin­ish­ing shoot­ing that Aleppo was get­ting shelled and there was that hor­ri­ble vi­ral video and photo of the young shell­shocked boy in the am­bu­lance that went ev­ery­where. I had so many peo­ple come up to me and say, “Oh, my God, can you be­lieve what’s hap­pen­ing in Syria right now?” And I said, “Oh, my God, can you be­lieve what’s been hap­pen­ing in Syria for the past six years?”

City of Ghosts (R, 91 min­utes). At Land­mark’s E Street Cin­ema

AMA­ZON STU­DIOS/IFC FILMS

TOP: A scene from “City of Ghosts,” which was nom­i­nated for a Grand Jury prize at the Sun­dance Film Festival.

TAYLOR JEWELL/IN­VI­SION/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ABOVE: The film’s di­rec­tor, Matthew Heine­man. One of his pre­vi­ous films, 2015’s “Car­tel Land,” was nom­i­nated for an Acad­emy Award.

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