The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Matthew Heineman has, at an age when most filmmakers are just getting started, already made a deep dent in the documentary world. After breaking out in 2012 with "Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare" — a film he co-directed with Susan Froemke, and which was nominated for a Grand Jury prize at Sundance — the 34-year-old filmmaker followed up with a one-two punch: the Oscar-nominated drug documentary "Cartel Land" in 2015, and his latest film, "City of Ghosts," which is already garnering buzz in advance of next year's nominations.

As with his previous, highly topical work, the of-the-moment subject of "Ghosts" is the Islamic State, also known as ISIS — or, rather, a band of citizen journalists from the Syrian city of Raqqa who have defied death threats and assassinations to get the news out of the Islamic State's capital, via a Web portal called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. (In 2015, RBSS was given the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Heineman phoned from New York, where he lives, to talk about the sometimes dangerous, always complicated and vital nature of his work.

Q: Your last three feature films have been about our broken health-care system, Mexican drug cartels and Syrian resistance to radical Islam. Why are you drawn to such in­trac­table problems, where nothing ever seems to change?

A: With all three of these topics, it's so easy to be hopeless. As Americans, we're programmed to want a silver bullet: You pull a lever, and then everything gets fixed. But it's very hard to figure out where that lever is. One of my goals in making all three of these films — and I hadn't fully thought through this before you asked the question — is that I find hope and optimism in individuals who are fighting for change. In the case of "Cartel Land," it's everyday citizens rising up to fight the evil Mexican drug cartels, with guns and with violence. In "City of Ghosts," it's everyday citizens rising up to fight against the evil of ISIS — with pens and cameras.

Q: You once wanted to be a history teacher so that you could effect change by learning from the past. Do you include yourself — and the films you make — as part of the fight for change?

A: Too often, we rely on other people — whether it be politicians or institutions — to effect change. While all three of these films are quote-unquote political in nature, I've tried to make them as apolitical — as human — as possible. If you're going to see "City of Ghosts" because you want to understand everything about the Syrian conflict and how to fix it, then it's the wrong film to see.

Q: The last footage in the film is from late 2016. How have things changed in Raqqa since then, as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces begin their push to oust ISIS?

A: It has changed a lot, to some degree. And to some degree, it hasn't changed at all. As [RBSS spokesman Abdel Aziz al-Hamza] says in the film, "ISIS is an idea." This idea will not be beaten with guns or bombs or troops. This idea has been indoctrinated into a generation of children and teenagers. This idea has been indoctrinated to people all across the world.

Q: One of the most disturbing scenes in the film features the so-called Caliphate Cubs — ISIS’s child trainees — one of whom is shown beheading a teddy bear, although they have done worse. How do you combat an idea?

A: In the early days, they would graffiti walls with anti-ISIS slogans, put up posters, dispelling the myths of what was happening, create an anti-ISIS magazine with a similar name to an ISIS magazine, all targeted at children. Google has an initiative called Jigsaw that is trying to fight ISIS with the Google search engine. Two or three years ago, if you searched, "How to join ISIS," it would take you less than a minute to find out how to join, how to build a bomb. Now, they've reverse-engineered the search so that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to find this content.

Q: When making “Cartel Land,” you often put yourself in harm’s way, riding along in a bulletproof vest with armed vigilantes. But here you are — arguably — putting others at risk by profiling the members of RBSS in a way that could increase the risk of attack by ISIS. Can you talk about the precautions you took?

A: I can talk vaguely about that. This is a conversation that we had from the very beginning, even before we started filming. When I first sat down with RBSS, we talked about the ramifications of making the film, and obviously the ramifications after the film comes out. Their risk profile will increase. The guys decided that they wanted to come out from behind the veneer of social media, to show their faces, to show they're real people, that they're from Raqqa, that they're moderate Muslim men. While we were filming, we were in­cred­ibly conscious of how, when, where and what we filmed, always encrypting our footage, never putting anything online. In postproduction and editing, we gave them the opportunity to see the film, to make sure that we would not show something that would put them in danger.

Q: For example, when you show safe houses in Germany and Turkey, where some of these men are now in exile, do you make sure not to include identifying details about location?

A: Yes.

Q: How do you see the state of journalism around the world, given that it is under fire even in the U. S.?

A: The amount of money that's being put into long-form investigative journalism has become less and less. There's less money in the foreign bureaus of traditional media. We're relying more and more on citizen journalists to shine light on these remote corners of the world. The film is many things to me, but it's partially an homage to journalism.

Q: You’ve spoken about the allure of the nimble, stripped-down style of filmmaking you adopted in “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts” — something you call “one-man-banding.” What does this mean for your movies going forward?

A: It's not a totally sustainable way of having a life, so it's not something I can do forever, or with every film. It allows me to get very intimate footage, to break down barriers, to get extraordinarily personal scenes. It's not helicoptering in and out and saying, "Can I hang out with you?" It's becoming part of the fabric of the daily lives of my characters. Despite what anyone says to the contrary, having a big boom mic hanging in your face changes the dynamic. My favorite way of making films — and what has allowed me to get key scenes in"Cartel Land" and "City of Ghosts" — has been when I've been able to operate alone.

Q: Hamoud, the RBSS cameraman, calls the camera a weapon. Is that true for your camera as well?

A: Propaganda is one of the most evil tools that human beings use against each other. It defends wars, propagates lies, disseminates fear. One of the things the film is about is the use of media as a weapon: this war of propaganda between RBSS on one side and ISIS — with its slick Hollywood-style productions — on the other. My camera, in telling the story, becomes part of the narrative, but I generally don't like to insert myself. You don't hear me ask questions. You don't feel my presence. Yet there's no question that films like these — and the filmmaker — are part of the narrative as well.

Q: What is your hope that people will take away from “City of Ghosts”?

A: One of the beauties of documentary is that it allows you to meet characters you wouldn't ordinarily meet. It takes you to places you wouldn't otherwise be allowed to go. I'll never forget when we heard the film was going to Sundance. It was right around when we were finishing shooting that Aleppo was getting shelled and there was that horrible viral video and photo of the young shell-shocked boy in the ambulance that went everywhere. I had so many people come up to me and say, "Oh, my God, can you believe what's happening in Syria right now?" And I said, "Oh, my God, can you believe what's been happening in Syria for the past six years?"

City of Ghosts (R, 91 minutes).
At Landmark's E Street Cinema.