Film Review: City of Ghosts

A portrait of the modern media landscape of war, and Syrian citizen journalists protecting the truth


The videos and images that Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently have to process on a daily basis would break a person of lesser mettle. Throughout City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman’s profile of the renegade collective working to chronicle the ISIS takeover of Syria with street-level footage, the leaders of RBSS are forced to sit and watch as their neighbors and loved ones are slaughtered and left on display as a deterrent to other would-be rebels. They sift through ISIS propaganda, through videos of children holding buckets in soup lines for their families and men being mounted into crucifixion positions on street sidewalks as a public warning. And they don’t look away. Even when most others would, when the footage suggests a world consumed by evil in its truest sense, RBSS keeps watching. Because somebody must.

In Raqqa, Syria, the members of RBSS were once everyday middle-class people. Abdalaziz Alhamza (Aziz) was a college student. Hamoud al-Mousa was a self-described “hermit” with a passion for filming the world around him. But when the Arab Spring uprisings brought resistance against the Assad regime, they also left a power vacuum in the region, one quickly overwhelmed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Before long Raqqa was devastated, with alleged separatists being rounded up by the day. Satellite dishes were mandated as dangerous, and citizens were relegated to monitored internet cafes. Checkpoints were established to search smartphones for subversive activity. The constant threat (and promise) of violence overwhelmed the city.

But RBSS had other ideas. As it grew more difficult to sneak information out of Raqqa, a group of citizen journalists came together to document the horrors going on under ISIS. As City of Ghosts notes, however, the mission became more than one of mere recording. In the same way that the documentary upholds the grave importance of RBSS’ mission, it also speaks unsettling truths about the ways in which ISIS has started its own media war as one of the key functions of its recruitment. With propaganda videos shot and edited with the big-budget aesthetics of Hollywood films, it’s not simply that their brutal fundamentalism has taken hold. It’s being marketed as a grand ideal, on a daily basis, with the latest technologies.

And it’s pulling everybody into its path, particularly some of Raqqa’s most impressionable minds. One of the more horrifying moments in City of Ghosts surrounds the children of the region. Among ISIS’ most effective recruitment tactics is to simply raise its soldiers from a young age; rounded up as “Caliphate Cubs,” the terrorist organization indoctrinates local youth, and gives them the Western comforts it knows that their families can’t provide. A small child is taught onscreen how to kill, cutting open the throat of a stuffed animal in full ISIS garb. In the same way that its messaging has been built around making ISIS an “attractive” option, its brainwashing processes have turned Raqqa into a place for the haves and have-nots. The haves obey, the have-nots live either in silence or in mortal danger.

City of Ghosts is a harrowing account of a Syria that’s largely only seen through images of destruction in the West. And while RBSS have spent years documenting the ongoing and seemingly endless atrocities perpetrated by ISIS, Heineman’s documentary also puts faces and backstories to all of those shelled-out buildings. It’s a gesture of empathy too rarely extended in a time of extreme political division, and it also speaks to the importance of RBSS’ work. At one point, Hamoud and his brother are forced to watch an ISIS recruitment film built around the slow, dramatic execution of their father. In another interlude, a pair of ex-pats in Berlin click through some of the group’s pictures, ticking through which neighbors and relatives once called those places home. As the documentary goes on, and it begins to follow the increased alt-right sentiments in Germany and Europe at large alongside the story of Raqqa, it offers several poignant reminders that before Raqqa was the de facto ISIS capital, it was also a place where people had their own lives.

Raqqa remains home for the members of RBSS, but much of the smuggled footage from within the city leaves them wondering what’ll even be left to return to, whenever the conflict ends. (The members of RBSS first escaped to Turkey, and when the ISIS threats followed, they next sought exile in Berlin.) Heineman moves between their work and the individuals carrying it out with a deft hand, given how intimate and personal RBSS’ mission is. Yet the most admirable among them may well be those still in Raqqa, capturing images of ISIS soldiers parading down the streets by the carload and the dead they leave in their wake. A scene of a masked, voice-modified RBSS contributor uploading videos at a snail’s pace carries unimaginable dread with it. The execution of a key benefactor to the organization leaves its representatives to wonder when they might be next.

Yet the divisions around the world, as it relates to Syria and the many outside nations with ties to it, cement the necessity of RBSS. City of Ghosts is far less about the region’s troubled history than about the now, the daily abuses that continue to grow in severity as politics are talked elsewhere. And in a cultural period when journalism is under attack at large, when the public displays open contempt for news which doesn’t align with their predetermine views of the world, this is a documentary that argues passionately for its best merits, and for our need of it. Without the brave members of RBSS, it’s difficult to say if we would know anything of Raqqa, or its citizens, or their suffering. It may well have remained another demolished city in another ISIS-contested region, painful for those nearby and barely registering before the larger world. But now people have the ability to watch and to see, and they must. Because even when it’s at the price of their own loved ones, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is watching.