City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts

Image by City of Ghosts

Daniel Nelson

City of Ghosts is an immensely powerful and disturbing documentary about the Syrian citizen journalists who came together in the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

They begin their dangerous work documenting the birth of the uprising against President Assad but the risks escalate alarmingly when they decide to continue after ISIS roars into town in 2014. Their inexperience is shockingly exposed when a member of the team is caught and killed, their cover is blown and they find themselves in the firing line as a result of the information ISIS discovers on his mobile phone.

Forced to flee, they escape to Turkey, where they - like the families they leave behind - are still at risk of daylight assassination as ISIS pursues them. 

When the streets of Turkey prove too dangerous they manage to get to Germany, determined to continue exposing the vicious truth behind ISIS' sunny tourist videos. They become a mini news-agency, thanks to the recklessly fearless commitment and bravery of a handful of other citizen heroes in Raqqa. In 2015, RBSS won the Committee to Protect Journalists' International Press Freedom Award.

They final elect to go public and show their faces, putting themselves and their families into even greater danger as an enraged ISIS tries to exact revenge. Raqqa co-founder Hamoud leaves town when a bounty is put on his head, so ISIS captures and kills his father and releases a video of his murder. One of Hamoud's brothers is assassinated, too, and another disappears.

Sadly, in Germany they run into anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant demonstrations and threats, a heartbreaking counterpoint to the hate-spewers from whom they were seeking refuge.

Film-maker Matthew Heineman's trademark brio, pace and in-your-face camerawork is ramped up by RBSS' snatched videos of life in the caliphate and ISIS' own sickening footage. Despite the horrors of ISIS' homicidal behaviour and of the Syrian conflict generally, one of the most shocking scenes comes when the camera quietly lingers on an RBSS activist in his room: he's got the shakes, and is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and on the edge of a breakdown. It's a shattering image of the damage that war inflicts even when it doesn't kill.

* 18 July, BFI Southbank; 19 July, Picturehouse Central; 20 July, Curzon Soho; from 21 July, Barbican, Curzon Bloomsbury, ICA, Curzon Soho; from 4 August, Regent Street Cinema

+ Also on Syria: 

Wednesday 26 July 

* Goodbye Aleppo, BBC Arabic documentary about four citizen journalists who film themselves and each other as the battle for the city rages around them in December 2016 + Q&A with the makers of the film, 7pm, £12.50/£10, Frontline Club, 14 Norfolk Place, W2. Info: 7269 9030

* Matthew Heineman on ‘City of Ghosts’ and his affinity for picking (seemingly) futile battles

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