American audiences have enjoyed a recent spate of documentaries that take us beyond headlines and just-the-facts news stories about the Islamic State, Iraq and Syria, and that give us, instead, a glimpse of the people whose lives have been so viciously upended by militancy’s rise in the Middle East.
Last week, it was “Nowhere to Hide,” offering a candid portrait of the decimation of Jalawla, Iraq, through the eyes of a gentlenatured medic and family man. This week, it’s “City of Ghosts,” providing an apt bookend chronicling the heroic efforts of citizen journalists in Raqqa, Syria, as they attempt to document the carnage that the Islamic State has wreaked on their once-cosmopolitan city. (Both films screened at the AFI Docs festival in June.)
In 2014, when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, invaded Syria, a group of enterprising teachers, students and professionals began filming the atrocities performed by the group, which included public executions and torture. Because the international press was largely ignoring what was happening in Raqqa, the anonymous activists began to disseminate their images via social media, eventually becoming known as the undercover group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).
As the Syria story heated up, RBSS’s electronic missives became more widespread in the mainstream media, while the Islamic State honed its own once-primitive communications techniques into slick videos borrowing production values and story beats from computer games and Hollywood movies. “City of Ghosts” chronicles that history, and, when one of RBSS’s leaders is suddenly killed, the subsequent escape of several members to Turkey and Germany. In exile, they desperately try to protect their sources back home while making sure the stories of Raqqa — and Syria at large — reach a wider audience, battling psychological and emotional trauma while becoming the toasts of Western human rights and free-press advocates.
Directed by Matthew Heineman with breathtaking access and urgency, “City of Ghosts” possesses the same taut, cinemavérité energy as his previous film “Cartel Land.” Like that movie, this is a work of nerve and immediacy, with the filmmaker gaining unprecedented proximity to the life-threatening events he’s recording. There are moments when the film plays like a soberingly real-life international thriller.
As heroic and important as RBSS’s activism is, however, it’s the quieter moments of personal reflection that linger most, as when one of the organization’s founders succumbs to a fit of uncontrollable shaking, his body processing the grief and loss that he has so assiduously tried to keep at bay while literally trying to save his country. As Americans continue to debate about a compulsively tweeting president, strict immigration policies and efforts to manipulate an often easily distracted media, “City of Ghosts” provides a grim reminder of what journalism should look like, and why its stakes are literally life and death.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains disturbing violent content and some obscenity. In English and Arabic with subtitles. 91 minutes.