They all thought that the group calling themselves the Islamic State was just a militant one, and then the group, which would come to be known as ISIS, started organizing terror attacks and lining up "infidels" to be executed in the public square. City of Ghosts is a documentary that takes on the resistance against ISIS within one particular city, that of Raqqa, an isolated community within the heart of Syria. The resistance, of course, was borne out of desperation for a swift response to the violence that would tear apart a peaceful community. The citizen journalists who act as our primary subjects understand the power of protestant speech.
Likewise, director/editor Matthew Heineman understands the power that lies in iconographic imagery, such as a moment, unhindered by off-screen narration that might have undermined it, when a fed-up people tear down a statue carved in the likeness of a tyrant. Other images are downright terrifying, such as when we are taken to the streets amid a shootout, during which someone is killed, the randomness of it sending his compatriots into a frenzy. Images of death pervade Heineman's footage, from the senseless public executions to the explosions that demolish large portions of entire neighborhoods.
The central focus of Heineman's film is the activity of the resistance group, called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), which hit the ground running on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter. We learn a little about some members of the group: Hamoud, the cameraman, repeatedly watches his father's death over the course of one of the propaganda films made by ISIS, claiming it gives him strength in his fight. Mohamad was a math teacher. Through sheer force of will, this pair helps to create a fight that extends beyond the literal public square and reaches the world stage.
On their part, ISIS continues to create propaganda videos and impart rallying cries that are threats of violence. In the case of the former, the crude montage slideshows from the era of the Arab Spring in 2010-2012 have transformed considerably into bombastic blockbuster productions, with slow-motion photography and first-person-shooter gimmickry, factory-made for recruitment. In the case of the latter, we receive a glimpse of one speech that threatens a deity's judgment upon those who reject Islamic State tenets, and we watch as children are brainwashed and used as suicide bombers and cannon fodder.
Beneath the inevitable rage upon seeing these sights is an exasperated and exhausted sadness on the parts of Heineman, who gives the material a typical but illuminating structure, and the citizen journalists of RBSS, like Hamoud and Mohamad, who risk life and limb to bring the activities of a terror organization into the spotlight. This isn't a glorified news broadcast, in which we get either generic facts or talk-radio commentary, but a deeply felt report from behind enemy lines. The last half-hour of City of Ghosts finds our human subjects on the run. It ends without resolution, because so much of this conflict has no resolution. That sounds about right.
A documentary directed by Matthew Heineman.
Rated R (disturbing violent content, language).
Released in select cities on July 7, 2017.