City of Ghosts
Directed by: Matthew Heineman
Starring: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Hamoud, Hassan
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Empire:5 Stars
What is City of Ghosts about?
Type in “Raqqa” into Google, and you will find a link to the website for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently a fact referenced in the film City of Ghosts to highlight the prominence of their movement. Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently is a citizen journalism website that highlights the horrors that are being committed in the Syrian city of Raqqa by ISIS. The documentary focuses on the founders of the site and the citizen journalists who support them by sneaking footage and information out of Raqqa, which was then mainly under the control of ISIS. The film chronicles the perils the founders went through to gather and create the footage, which makes up the website and also the personal struggles, family deaths and threats to their lives they have sustained in their mission to bring to light the atrocities being committed in the city.
City of Ghosts highlights the power of social media and the strength of citizens to make a change – it will leave you thinking about concepts of bravery and also giving back. The film leaves you asking questions like how did I not know? What was the last brave thing I did? As part of this world, what have I done to help it? When you watch a documentary like this, it leaves you feeling like you live your life in a bubble, a realisation that is hard to swallow.
What has the director done before?
Matthew Heineman is an Oscar nominated and Emmy award winning filmmaker, most well-known for his 2015 Oscar nominated film Cartel Land, which examines the state of the ongoing drug problem along the U.S.-Mexican border. For Cartel Land Heineman received the Courage Under Fire Award from the International Documentary Association “in recognition of conspicuous bravery in the pursuit of truth.” This pursuit of truth is evident in City of Ghosts where there is no shying away from the gruesomeness (beheading and crucifixions) happening in Raqqa, you see it all, and there is nothing left to the imagination, which is documenting the facts as they are which is the purpose of a documentary, after all.
How does City of Ghosts relate to the real world?
City of Ghosts is very entrenched at the moment which makes it more frightening. The siege in Raqqa isn’t something that has happened in the past; it is something that is happening right now and right on the doorstep affecting Paris, Berlin and London. ISIS is changing all of our lives, and ISIS isn’t just a group of people it’s a dangerous Ideology that is spreading like a zombie disease making almost seemingly ordinary citizens into murders.
City of Ghosts relates to the world as these atrocities are still happening, the film also acts as a commentary on the power of the internet as a tool to inform, engage and mobilise people to act and be a force for good. On the other hand, the internet can be used a tool by groups such as ISIS to spread their message into the minds of vulnerable young people, through more sophisticated methods such as Hollywood style recruitment videos. Two wars are happening one on the ground in Syria but also a war in the media, as ISIS is using it too.
Watch City of Ghosts in the cinema or watch it on DVD?
Whether it is in cinema or online, the important thing is that you watch City of Ghosts. However, there is something to be said for watching a hard-hitting documentary such as this with a group of strangers, and the shared experience creates a tension when things become gruesome that is very different from watching it in the comfort of your home. Being in a cinema, upright and full screen you can take in all the information.
What did I like?
The documentary is hard to sit through due to the almost endless barrage of misery the founders have to go through, and you experience a myriad of emotions as they flee Raqqa to Turkey and from Turkey to Germany, leaving friends and family behind. The documentary did have some nuance as they were still able to make the subjects of the documentary very relatable and human. Sometimes documentaries can focus so much on the grief that it can almost be alienating because most people can’t imagine that much horror. However, City of Ghosts also has moments showcasing friends having fun together, enjoying the small wins and periods of the joys in life, e.g. moving into a new house and the Birth of a child.