This year, competing at the Oscars for the award for best documentary film is an incredible tale of bravery that rises from the rubble of the ongoing civil war in the Middle East. The film, City Of Ghosts, traces the journey of a bunch of men who have been working day and night from secret camps in Syria, Turkey and various parts of Europe, to bring out stories of war, oppression and destitution in the ISIS-occupied Syrian city of Raqqa, through their website, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. It is a life-threatening job. The men could get killed. Some of their colleagues have already been killed for the crime of indulging in hard-hitting journalism.
City Of Ghosts is scripted, directed and partly filmed by Matthew Heineman, who stunned the world with Cartel Land (2016), a marvelous documentary on civilian struggle against drug cartels in Mexico.
Heineman’s documentaries unfold like thriller-dramas, sleekly shot and cut, and narrated in a way that the audience hardly feel like they are watching a documentary, a medium generally thought to be bland. Reality attains a filmy quality in his works, with extensive narrative arcs. In Cartel Land, he pulls all stops to get the perfect footage; one can only watch in awe and wonder how he made it to the dangerous locations equipped with a camera, and got back unharmed. And so, with Heineman, the process of making the documentary becomes as edgy as the life of the film’s subjects.
For City Of Ghosts, he travels with four citizen journalists as they flee from one city to another, from one safe-house to another, in order to escape the men of Islamic State who are constantly on the lookout for them. Heineman has in his hands some precious footage about how ISIS took over Raqqa – one of the hotbeds of Arab Spring. The international politics that played out behind the curtains are overlooked, but the impact that the film creates by weaving together personal stories is immense.
The film follows the citizen journalists carefully, cautious enough to not give out clues about their locations, or sometimes, even their face or voice. The danger is real and serious. One of the journalists interviewed for the film, Naji Jerf, whom the RBSS team regarded as their mentor, was killed in 2015 while the film was in the making. A number of their family members, friends and colleagues of RBSS have been slaughtered or are living under the fear of being found and killed, but the journalists refuse to back out.
The film opens and ends with visuals from the same event – the award ceremony of International Press Freedom, 2015, organised by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York – where the RBBS team get a standing ovation for their work. Heineman structures the film in such a way that we grow closer to them as the film proceeds. At the after-party of the award ceremony, the Raqqa journalists are seen sharing a lighter moment with other guests, and Heineman goes for a close-up shot of one of them, and with the cacophony in the background fading into an eerie silence, cuts to a visual from an ISIS execution video. You can’t help notice how technically superior those execution videos are, as if the Islamist terrorists made them for the world to watch people getting slaughtered like in a commercial thriller, with no remorse but with a pinch of sadism.
City Of Ghosts also discusses the refugee crisis Europe is struggling with. From the POV of Abdalaziz Alhamza, the spokesperson of the RBSS fold, and his friends, we see anti-refugee protesters in Berlin screaming, “These pigs will learn how to run, they will get a one-way ticket to Turkey”. It’s chaotic, and you are provided with close-up shots of Alhamza walking through the protest venue with his shoulders stooped, his face to the ground, carrying an air of gloom. We hear his voice-over, “The more time I spend away from Raqqa, the more I wonder if I will ever have a home to return to.” The narrative that Heineman weaves is astonishing and immensely powerful.
The men predominantly tell their stories on their own, without the director chipping in. The camera is an invisible attendee at their private home parties in Europe, where they quietly celebrate the birth of a child or an international award conferred on RBSS. In one of the most defining moments in the film, Alhamza, in his room in Germany, shivers and weeps silently, holding photographs of friends and family who were killed in Syria. In another instance, two brothers re-watch an ISIS video of their father being ceremoniously gunned down. “I don’t know how many times I have watched this,” he says in an unwavering voice. They promise to never yield, and keep the fight going. It’s from personal loss and grief that these journalists find strength.
City Of Ghosts is available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video.
The City Of Ghosts review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.