Film Review: City of Ghosts

The story of the Syrian activist group fighting for awareness of how ISIS and government forces are decimating their beleaguered home city of Raqqa is part blistering dispatch and part somber chronicle of the scars of war.
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One fascinating development in how 21st-century wars are being recorded is how the key figures are often not the soldiers and generals fighting but the civilian victims and witnesses. Partially that’s due to the long, grinding nature of the fighting itself. We will soon be at the two-decade mark of the Afghanistan War—with comparatively little to report in terms of ground won or lost, major battles decided one way or the other, the story becomes more granular and individual. Matthew Heineman’s documentary City of Ghosts is one of the most resonant of these stories (Zaradasht Ahmed’s recent Nowhere to Hide is another) about ordinary people trying to maintain their humanity amidst horribly extraordinary circumstances.

The heroes of this riveting account are the brave men—they have woman in their number, but none are onscreen for their safety—of the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). These are mostly middle-class guys, including a math teacher and a film buff, who started documenting what was happening to “our forgotten Syrian city on the Euphrates that has become a city of ghosts.” They recount the all-too-familiar brief flare of hope that started in 2012 with the Arab Spring and the burst of anti-Assad protest and the long spiral of chaos that followed. Since ISIS set up camp in Raqqa in 2014, RBSS has been publishing reports of the occupation’s brutal depravity sent out by their heroic counterparts on the ground.

In his Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, Heineman showed an ability to embed himself in a world of moral quicksand where the rules of civilized society have been swept away and to get his subjects to reveal what that has done to them. Here, he follows RBSS closely as they move from one safe house to the next, nomadic and urbane fighters in this new media war of ideas and propaganda. Everything they do is predicated on the hope that enough people in the outside world will see what ISIS’s medieval theocratic savagery is doing to their fellow civilians and help bring it to an end. The movie’s framing device, showing RBSS being feted by the Committee to Protect Journalists at a gala event whose glittering façade seems of a different universe than the events being discussed, shows the aching distance between the group’s hopes and reality.  

The narrative of any halfway-intelligent war story must follow at least two tracks: the conflict itself and its aftereffects; what happens when the shooting stops. In City of Ghosts, all the shooting is in one sense virtual. The citizen journalists of RBSS see the destruction of their city from afar, posting the stories, photos, and videos of barrel bombs and beheadings on their laptops. In one wrenchingly unreal scene, a couple of the members look at photos of a rubble-strewn Raqqa street and realize that it was the block they used to live on.

While RBSS isn’t actually on the ground dodging bullets and shrapnel, they are still part of the war. On their mission, they battle loneliness, PTSD and straight-out fear just like any soldier or battle-scarred refugee. After their journalist mentor is assassinated in public in Turkey, RBSS discovers that being outside Syria is no safe guarantee and that victory is probably their only way out. As one of the men says, “Either we will win, or they will kill all of us.”

Click here for cast and crew information.