The Syrian civil war is being fought on many fronts. One of these fronts is found in the very coverage, footage and headlines that we interact with as we witness and attempt to understand the six-year (and counting) disintegration of Syrian society. Matthew Heineman’s latest documentary City of Ghosts exposes one of those fronts in the media war of Syria- the dangerous attempts of those civilian journalists in Raqqa to bring the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) to the rest of the world. Neither simple advocacy for their necessary journalism nor a detailed history of the conflict, Heineman focuses on the personal journeys of the individuals and the precarious situation in which they endure to live and work. The haunting power of City of Ghosts comes from depicting the real consequences of the war to those untrained, ordinary civilians whose home-city has been devastated and who have risked their lives to report it.
Beginning at a rather comfortable yet patronising ceremony in 2015, where hosted members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) are awarded the International Press Freedom Award, Heineman takes us back to their city in 2012, when the ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen inspired revolutionary protests against the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Two years later, a jihadist group known as ISIS took over the city and declared it part of their new caliphate that stretched from eastern Syria to western Iraq. While ISIS portrayed life as peaceful and harmonious under their rule, the civilians of Raqqa faced severe limitations and horrifying punishments if they resisted. A group of concerned civilians, politicised during the Arab Spring, began to use social media to send out videos and photographs so that those across the world could witness the terrifying acts being committed on their streets. Heineman focuses on four civilian journalists responsible for founding RBSS: Hamoud, an amateur cameraman; Aziz, a former biology student; Mohamad, a former maths teacher; and Hussum, who attended law school as the revolution broke out. Combatting the highly stylised, Hollywood-inspired ISIS propaganda with raw, secretive footage of their actions, each man and his family find themselves in extreme danger when ISIS declare a media blackout and begin killing those that defy it. Heineman charts their journey onto the Turkish-Syrian border and into Germany, where the threats to their lives continue but the harrowing existential crises from becoming refugees also begin to impact the group. Heineman records the private lives of those behind the press-award podium, their dedication and their fear; all that they’ve endured and all that they’ve lost.
Like his 2015 documentary Cartel Land, Heineman demonstrates his cinematic yet intimate style can be unsettling though, at times, almost unbelievable through the polished production values. Heineman demonstrates he is an effective, even artistic, filmmaker with his serene overhead, panning shots of Raqqa and tag-team composed sequences within RBSS’ houses and offices. The visual remains paramount in his style as he consistently contrasts the video-game aesthetic of ISIS propaganda (showing the well-documented sophistication of their media operations) with the unelaborated, often panic-stricken, footage from the secret reporters. Heineman’s tendency to create a developing narrative with dramatic momentum does make us question whether what we see is actually a reenactment or being captured in the moment. While the director-producer himself remains voiceless and unseen, never directly probing, questioning or explaining his subject, there is a clear sense of guidance and construction taking place here. Fortunately, he is disposed towards finding the nuance within the diverse, traumatic experiences of the RBSS journalists: from reunions and new beginnings (moving into unfamiliar houses and having children in exile) to protesting dangerously against the anti-refugee sentiment of the far right in Germany.
Rather than seeking to locate root causes, Heineman searches for connections, whether social or thematic, in his subject while crucially never losing sight of the people involved. As Cartel Land sought to explore the parallels between the civil militias of the US Arizona Border Recon and the Michoachan-based Autodefensas, City of Ghosts tacitly parallels the intolerance of ISIS with those German far-right campaigners: replete with flags declaring solidarity around ethnic purity and peddling myths of a homogenous utopia. It is also disturbing to step into the private and working lives of these journalists. The unreserved, lingering depiction of their physical and emotional frailty against assassination attempts and hostile foreign state institutions, makes for the most hard-hitting, evocative moments in the documentary: when Hamoud and his brother watch their father being executed or Aziz shaking in torment and severe anxiety at the enormity of their exile and the consequences of their mission, stating in the deathly silence: ‘Either we will win or they will kill all of us’. These moments cut behind the glossy press interviews, even the camaraderie and comfort of family, to the real toll of the war.
‘A camera is more powerful than a weapon’ Hamoud tells us. RBSS’ brave coverage and Heineman’s own documentary approach to their plight embody this statement. RBSS, as one journalistic organisation working in Syria, has brought the atrocities and notoriety of ISIS to the world while Heineman has dug beneath that work to locate the aspirations and despair of those who do it. City of Ghosts does not attempt to explain the Syrian civil war definitively, as its view is too narrow and subjective to achieve that task. It is also clear, as Heineman charts, that RBSS’ journalism has penetrated Western mainstream media and successfully exposed the brutality being committed there. Yet, more than accolades and advocacy, City of Ghost‘s sustaining accomplishment is to show the agency and struggle of those within and without the country in this difficult, haunting new reality. He shows their fight and mourning for a home that they will likely never return to.