Review: ‘City of Ghosts’

Hot Docs 2017

3 mins read

City of Ghosts
(USA, 91 min.)
Dir. Matthew Heineman
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)


The civil war in Syria has generated numerous documentaries, dealing with the on-going brutal conflict, that it’s somewhat easy to cynically feel fatigued, as if the tragic narratives are all the same. What sets City of Ghosts apart is that it’s the story of local journalists, who risk their own lives to prevent the insidious evil of ISIS and its systematic erasure of history.

Part of ISIS’ rise has been due to its highly sophisticated media production, from slick execution videos to professional-looking reportage. A journalistic resistance group dubbing themselves the RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently) risk life and limb to bring the truth about their city to the wider world, smuggling out camera cards that give lie to the falsehoods of their occupiers.

Mathew Heineman follows up his Oscar-nominated Cartel Land with this piercing, effective look at these brave truth tellers. As they settle in Turkey and then Germany, we witness two of the journalists performing a regular ritual, watching the execution video of their father who was killed because of the reporting of his sons. It’s harrowing, of course, but it illustrates without hyperbole the stakes involved and the bravery and tenacity of those being portrayed.

With intimacy and a deft touch, Heineman’s portrayal is stellar, always focussing on the subjects rather than the subjectivity of the filmmaker. This is no mere advocacy doc or superficial examination, with the film probing deeply the emotional and physical effects of the journalists’ work. Where many stories from Syria will capture interest, there are few films of such heart and intelligence that will be seen. City of Ghosts showcases a remarkable group who seek to illuminate with truth while the forces of darkness are consistently trying to silence them.

City of Ghosts screens:
-Friday, April 28 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 6:30 PM (Scotiabank Big Ideas screening)
-Saturday, April 29 at Isabel Bader at 5:00 PM (Food on Film screening)
-Saturday, May 6 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 9:30 PM
-Sunday, May 7 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 12:45 PM

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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