Timely, pressing, important. Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) returns with City of Ghosts, one of the tautest, most gripping documentaries in years. The film barely lets you breathe as it delves into the reality, tragedy, and cost of those fighting ISIS in Syria.
City of Ghosts tells the story of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a group of citizen journalists taking on the extremists who have turned their hometown into the “capital of ISIS.” Using hidden cameras, clandestine internet connections, and social media, they document and expose the daily conditions and atrocities. Through their efforts, they group shows the world outside the reality of life in Raqqa, though it comes with an astronomical price tag. This is a story of everyday people battling against insurmountable odds.
Many of the founders live as marked men—those who haven’t been found and killed, live in exile and in hiding, moving from safe house to safe house. They depend on brave undercover assets for up to date information, and their task becomes increasingly harrowing as friends and family die and lives hang in the balance. Beyond those dangers—as if that’s not enough—they must contend with the rising tide of global racism thwarting their efforts, creating even more hazards, and making it more difficult to present their case to the world.
Interspersed with RBSS’ on-the-ground footage, Heinemann’s camera captures the lives of those in exile. On the surface, it’s rather mundane—they mostly sit in nondescript hotel rooms, working on laptops, occasionally taking phone calls. But the heavy weight they bear is obvious, and chilling moments suck the air out of the theater—watching one man watch footage of ISIS execute his father is a visceral gut-punch like few I’ve ever experienced on film. The only comparisons that even come close are Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.
At the same time as RBSS is forced to live in the shadows and scuttle quickly to safety as threats continue to arise, Heinemann captures fleeting glimpses of normalcy and joy and touches of human warmth, like a quick moment of sweetness between a husband and wife. This illuminates why they persist—and why they can’t stop, drive home the true stakes, and illustrate the continuing importance of journalism. Vital and insistent, City of Ghosts is a movie that haunts you long after walking out of the theater. [Grade: A]
This is an expanded version of a capsule review that originally ran in The Seattle Times.