Dir. Matthew Heineman. Doc | US, 2017 | 90 mins
City Of Ghosts is Raqqa, where a group of citizen journalists risked their lives to report the reality of their home town in thrall to ISIS which had seized power in 2014 during the vacuum left when the people rose up in the Arab Spring, particularly- in this case, against 40 years of control by Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad.
Heinemann’s documentary portrait follows similar lines to his award-winning Cartel Land (2015) which explored the troubled Mexican Border of the US. Meanwhile, back in Syria, these middle-class and well-funded young men: campaigner and self-confessed troublemaker Aziz; Hamoud; Hussam and Mohamed set up RBSS or Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently to report live events going on in a city where official journalists are banned, unlike in Aleppo and Mosul. Sadly, they are all now in exile, if they haven’t already lost their lives.
The film takes us through chronological events with photos, footage and phonecalls to paint a picture of horrific violence, disease – caused by hospital shutdowns and food shortages – and general mayhem as ISIS reduce the quiet and beloved hometown to disaster and poverty.
Heineman reveals the astonishing phenomenon of the ‘Caliphate Cubs’ – kids trained to kill in the name of ISIS – one alarming scene shows a tot ‘cutting the throat’ of a soft toy – and there is also disturbing footage of beheading and crucifixions, and worse still, ‘Hollywood-style’ sensationalised footage recorded by ISIS of slaughter and shootings staged in the city centre nearby desert settings.
Despite its modest running time, it feels churlish to admit that the documentary often drags when following the mens’ undercover activities in ‘safe houses’ in Turkey and Germany, and although their plight is clearly mortifying, there is a tendency to over-egg their emotional reactions behind the scenes. The group finds that the countries of self-imposed exile are not always as sympathetic to their cause as they had hoped, given the associated atrocities caused by ISIS in Germany and France.
Clearly RBSS are a laudable organisation and Aziz makes it clear in the final scene that while ISIS has currently been defeated, the situation is unlikely to change while the fundamentals remain the same, and the power that be fail to recognise that democracy and not despotism is the way forward in the Middle East. MT
ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 21 JULY 2017