Review: ‘City of Ghosts’

Hot Docs 2017

5 mins read

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


City of Ghosts makes a strong case for being the definitive documentary of Syrian Civil War to date. A portrait of the citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), directed by Matthew Heineman of Cartel Land fame (and executive-produced by Alex Gibney, whose smooth narrative style City of Ghosts successfully emulates), it offers both an involving look at a group of courageous activists and a useful overview of the wider shape of the conflict to date. It’s what The White Helmets should have been.

In 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutionary wave and, more locally, the imprisonment and torture of a group of boys in the southern town of Daraa who had spray painted anti-government messages, people across Syria began protesting against the Assad regime. These protests extended to the sleepy northern town of Raqqa, where the inhabitants, including those who founded RBSS, quickly overcame their apolitical nature derived from decades of dictatorship-enforced calm and joined in the demonstrations. Into this chaos stepped ISIS, who took over Raqqa in 2013 and made it their de facto capital, subduing the population through their trademark spectacular violence: public executions in the central square and glossy action movie-style propaganda videos. The Assad regime reacted with air strikes; in the words of an RBSS activist, using the presence of hundreds of ISIS terrorists to bomb thousands of civilians. This is the state of the city today.

RBSS reported on ISIS’ atrocities from the beginning, and continues to do so today; all of the footage in Raqqa in City of Ghosts —much of it ghastly— was shot by RBSS. Several of their members have been killed by ISIS—shot or beheaded; the father of one of RBSS’ founders is murdered in one of ISIS’ propaganda videos. This has driven many of RBSS’ members into exile, and it is in safehouses in Turkey, Germany and France that Heineman finds them, uploading images and videos from their colleagues still in Raqqa. Even in exile they aren’t safe; the group’s father figure, Naji al Jerf, is murdered in Turkey, driving the group to Germany, where they continue to face threats from ISIS and far-right nationalists alike. The group’s bravery in the face of such violence is truly amazing.

What’s fascinating is that even though ISIS is the immediate threat and thus the focus of the group’s reporting, spokesman Abdul Aziz Al-Hamza, who was at the Hot Docs Big Ideas screening with director Heineman and the Toronto Star’s foreign affairs reporter Michelle Shephard, insists that the real enemy is still the Assad regime. RBSS members even voice sympathy with those who join ISIS as a misguided resistance against Assad. This narrative and analysis more or less jells with the ones given in books like Burning Country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami and Syria Speaks, an overview of art and journalism in the conflict. It’s a contentious story but Heineman and RBSS’s insider documentary access make a compelling case for it.

There are a few elisions, of course. As with, apparently, all other Syria docs, women are more or less invisible—a fact that can only speak to the patriarchal attitudes seemingly equally shared among all sides of the conflict. The group’s funding remains a bit of a question mark, addressed only in a TV interview where they mention nameless NGOs. (Their website also sports a big red “DONATE” button.) And the group’s apparently tense relationship with the region’s would-be liberators, the Kurdish YPG, goes unmentioned. More details on these points would have been appreciated.

So City of Ghosts may not tell the whole story, but it tells a lot of it. If you’re going to watch one film on the Syrian Civil War, make it this one.

City of Ghosts screens:
-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

*For a second take on City of Ghosts, read Jason Gorber’s review.*


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