City of Ghosts (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Brave Syrian civilian journalists against ISIS

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Documentary film “City of Ghosts” often chills us with its unflinching presentation of what was going on in Raqqa, a Syrian city which was relatively unknown before it became the self-declared capital city of ISIS in 2014. We see video clips showing people getting crucified or executed, and we also get a number of unforgettable moments vividly showing how things were quite bad for many people living in Raqqa.

Those moments were secretly shot by the undercover members of a civilian journalist organization named “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS). which was founded around the time when the Syrian Civil War was begun in 2012. The initial purpose of this organization was reporting on the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, but it later came to focus on ISIS when ISIS occupied Raqqa in 2014 July, and that was how it drew considerable attention from the world outside.

As mentioned in the documentary, RBSS members had to take lots of risk for shooting many atrocities committed by ISIS. Once what they shot on the streets of Raqqa was spread around the world via Internet, they were soon targeted by ISIS, and many of them had to leave the city after one of them happened to be captured and then was brutally tortured and murdered.

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Nevertheless, those RBSS members who left the city continued their work. The documentary shows them working in their safe houses located somewhere in Germany and Turkey, and we get to know a bit more about some of them. In case of a young man named Aziz, he tells us that he was not particularly political before the war, but he has been one of the key figures of RBSS, and he is determined to keep going on with his political activity even after he is notified that his life may be in serious danger. Like many of his colleagues, he has been accustomed to danger as constantly threatened by ISIS, but he cannot help but be nervous as the camera looks at him for a while during one scene later in the film.

In case of a former high school teacher named Mohamad, he usually maintains his jovial attitude while working with his colleagues in Turkey, but then they find themselves quite disturbed by a sudden tragic incident involved with an acclaimed journalist who has been their mentor figure. Eventually, Mohamed decides to leave Turkey along with his wife, and they feel safer as arriving in Germany later, but they still should be careful as before.

In case of Hamoud and Hassan, these two brothers had to endure a painful personal tragedy while working as RBSS members. Not long after they got out of Raqqa, ISIS soldiers arrested their father and older brother, and both of them were promptly executed. Along with Hamoud, we see an atrocious video clip which presents his father’s execution in a slick hyper-reality style not so far from Hollywood films, and he phlegmatically tells us that he was more motivated rather than scared by that.

We see how these people and other RBSS members working outside Syria work closely with a number of remaining undercover RBSS members in Raqqa. The circumstance becomes a lot harder for them as ISIS cuts off Raqqa from the world outside step by step, but they keep trying hard anyway, and the evil of ISIS is exposed more around the world thanks to their diligent efforts,

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However, they sometimes feel helpless and frustrated as watching how ISIS spreads its virulent ideas around the world via the same tools they use for exposing ISIS, and the documentary pays considerable attention to those vile ISIS propaganda video clips spread around Internet. While it was initially pretty clumsy in making propagandas, ISIS soon came to produce slicker and showier versions for attracting more possible recruits, and we hear about how much its upgraded propagandas can be effective to its numerous potential targets around the world. In fact, their harmful effects were already shown from a number of terrible terror incidents around the world – including that horrible shooting incident in Tampa, Florida.

Although there were several limits in the production of his documentary, director Matthew Heineman, who was previously Oscar-nominated for “Cartel Land” (2015), brings considerable verisimilitude to his documentary, and he also did a competent job of capturing small intimate moments of humanity from RBSS members. While the mood among RBSS members is not exactly bright due to their constant danger, they sometimes let themselves loosened a little, and there is a warm human moment when several RBSS members have a casual conversation in their safe house. At one point, Hamoud reveals his personal matter in front of the camera, and the last shot of the documentary is poignant as he sees a tentative sign of hope.

Although it is occasionally tough to watch, “City of Ghosts” is worthwhile to watch nonetheless because it palpably presents another human story inside the Syrian Civil War. After ISIS was eventually driven out of Raqqa in 2017 October, the documentary loses some of its urgency at this point, but it still works as an engaging record of one admirable case of journalism, and it surely deserves to be mentioned along with “Last Men in Aleppo” (2017) and other notable documentaries about the Syrian Civil War.

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