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+ /

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