REVIEW: City of Ghosts

10 07 2017

Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts” can, and likely will, be reduced to platitudinous headlines about its timeliness and topic. “The movie we need right now,” “the document out of Syria that will make you feel and care,” or some variation that harps on its relevance to get well-meaning but geopolitically disengaged consumers to watch. And that’s fine, so long as we don’t lose sight of what this documentary represents as a piece of filmmaking.

Heineman’s film documents follows the members of Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS) in exile, as their hometown is now the titular town of apparitions. ISIS moved into Raqqa and began quickly silencing dissidents, many of whom ended up in Europe. In relative safety (Heineman filmed them at safe houses), RBSS began by raising awareness of ISIS’s brutality among the citizens still under their oppressive thumb. But with the terrorist group cracking down on satellites and other forms of online communication, they must also work to amplify civilian voices to the international community.

“City of Ghosts” is a film made by a journalist about other journalists, and the admiration shows. “In my opinion,” states an RBSS member, “a camera is more powerful than a weapon.” Heineman appears to emphatically agree. He’s on the frontline of a war fought less with ammunition and more with aesthetics, as ISIS uses Hollywood-style filmmaking to win over impressionable young men to their cause.

Crucially, Heineman never loses sight of the human cost of this battle on RBSS. This is no superhero movie where the heroes are invincible or impenetrable. Their fight exacts a toll on them, and “City of Ghosts” makes sure we remember that these extraordinary efforts are being undertaken by ordinary men. They have families, friends and attachments just like any other person on the planet. Though they manage to keep a straight, courageous face for most of the film, the little cracks in their resolve are as powerful a humanistic image as any footage they receive from inside Syria. B+ /

REVIEW: Cartel Land

11 04 2015

Cartel LandFull Frame Documentary Film Festival

Matthew Heineman’s documentary “Cartel Land” follows a real-life David and Goliath story, as its participants describe their struggle.  The average Mexican civilians, even as a collective force, are rendered puny by the behemoth of the drug cartels that pervade every corner of their society.

So enter Dr. Jose Mireles, stage right.  He’s a working man just like any other who gets mad as hell and decides not to take it anymore.  Since the Mexican constitution states that power derives from the people, Mireles decides to reclaim that right as the head of vigilante group Autodefensas.  The militia manages to gain some serious traction in towns located in the southern province of Michocán, driving out the entrenched cartels.

But “Cartel Land” asks, at what cost? In order to reestablish order in the region, the Autodefensas become increasingly militaristic themselves and thus relatively indistinguishable from the threat they tried to eliminate.  When it comes to examining the vicious cycle of violence begetting more violence, Heineman knocks the ball out of the park.

Where he falters, though, is jumping back across the border to shine a spotlight on an American vigilante group.  The Arizona Border Recon, run by a deluded patriot, seeks to stop undocumented migrants from crossing the border.  In order to rustle up support, they rely on appeals that range from racially coded language to outright racism.

What function the Arizona Border Recon is supposed to serve in “Cartel Land” escapes me.  Perhaps they were supposed to be a reference group to make the Autodefensas look more sane?  Any other connection between the vigilantes is tenuous at best since such a wide distance separates them geographically.

Mireles and the Autodefensas get the lion’s share of screen time, as they should.  The group is more relevant to the central concern of the film, and they are more interesting anyways.  Every time Tim “Nailer” Foley and his band of self-appointed border patrol agents show up on screen, they just disrupt the narrative flow and dilute the effectiveness of the documentary on the whole.  B- / 2stars