When it comes to learning about any mass scale violent and devastating conflict around the world, we’re almost hard-wired to focus only on the dry, flat data and ignore the heartbreaking toll these atrocities take on humans as individuals. It makes sense for us to scroll through a Facebook post declaring the deaths of 40, 60, 100 innocent civilians at some war-torn area, usually in a third world country, and think of that as just an upsetting number. Treating people like data is our way of coping with the emotional devastation of the situation.
It’s important to soak in the overall historical, political, or social information regarding these conflicts, but we also have to be aware of how these tragedies affect individuals who are, at the end of the day, not that different from us. It sounds maudlin and melancholic, yes, but this point bears repeating, lest we become immune to the suffering of our fellow human beings. When it comes to documentaries that find the perfect balance between informing the audience of the dry facts of such conflict, while presenting the deeply human and personal stories of those who are involved, director Matthew Heineman is a bit of gem.
Escape Fire, his incendiary (no pun intended) doc about US healthcare, laid out the frustrating facts of the case in a levelheaded manner, while also digging deep into the individual lives that were destroyed by our dysfunctional system. His terrific 2015 doc Cartel Land provided the audience with a sobering blunt look at the ins and outs of Mexican drug cartels, while managing to humanize all sides that are involved in that never ending battle.
In City of Ghosts, Heineman turns his camera to the handful of brave amateur journalists of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” an activist group dedicated to countering ISIS propaganda by showing the world how monstrous the Islamic State really is. For their valiant efforts, they have to live a life in exile from their beloved hometown of Raqqa, Syria, which is still under ISIS control, watching their relatives being executed while enduring the constant anxiety that they themselves might be killed at any second.
As he did with Cartel Land, Heineman structures the basic narrative outline of his film like a real-life procedural, an informative and heart-pounding political thriller whose fictionalized counterpart we can easily imagine being directed by the likes of Costa-Gavras and Jean-Pierre Melville. We meet the individuals in charge of this covert journalist operation, spread across Turkey and Germany, as they struggle to debunk as much of ISIS’ propaganda as possible, while furthermore exposing these monsters to the world.
You might have heard about ISIS using spiffy, Hollywood-style propaganda videos to attract new recruits, but City of Ghosts breaks down how nefarious and well-organized this operation is, as the members of RBSS point out the ways in which ISIS took clear production lessons from Hollywood to make their videos as attractive to impressionable youth as possible. Some of the videos look exactly like the over-the-top US military ads you see on TV (here’s an example), some of them exploit the youth’s love for FPS videogames, implying that they can “live the real thing” if they join ISIS. Going against such a deeply organized operation with a handful of volunteers is no easy task for the RBSS, but they cleverly use the free and open application of social media to their full advantage.
They do all of this, never taking their eye off the ball, while witnessing their home being reduced to rubble, their children being brainwashed into becoming ruthless killers, and their loved ones being killed because of their actions. The most emotionally devastating moment in City of Ghosts occurs when Heineman silently focuses his camera on two RBSS members who watch a video of their father being executed. The fact that the video is lit and shot like a Hollywood action flick, complete with spiffy editing and ultra slow-motion, makes this experience all the more sickening. The video ends and the brothers mourn the passing of their father. They then go straight back to work.
Later in the doc, Heineman shows the members of RBSS being told to get out of the country by German anti-Muslim demonstrators. This provides a sobering moment, since we know the protestors are afraid of radical Islamic terrorism, and are directing that fear to the last people they should, simply based on their targets’ resemblance to how they think a terrorist looks. The irony here would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. You might hate ISIS, but do you hate them the way someone who just had to watch their father being murdered by them does?
As he deftly builds a pulse-pounding real-life thriller, Heineman never forgets to include intimately personal moments that create instant empathy for his subjects. Sequences where the group make fun of one of their reporters for his bad grammar (“I became a math teacher so I wouldn’t have to deal with grammar,” he jokes), have an impromptu snowball fight in the streets of an undisclosed city in Germany (That’s how bad the danger for this group gets, the doc can only disclose which country they’re in) and wistfully watch video footage of their old lives in Raqqa. These scenes would have ended up on the cutting room floor in a more traditional, “journalistic” documentary, but Heineman always reminds us of the toll such devastation takes on the individual.
Most documentaries in this genre conclude with a series of text information superimposed on a black screen to let us know about the dry political facts that were prevalent at the end of the documentary’s production. Heineman uses the final five minutes of his film to show just how much of a destructive effect this conflict has had on one of the RBSS members’ nerves. It’s a heartbreaking experience, but an altogether necessary one that sets this film—and Heineman apart—from so many others.
Director: Matthew Heineman
Starring: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Hamoud, Hassan
Release Date: July 7, 2017