NEW YORK: So-called heroes sling into action just about every weekend of the summer movie season, but if you want to see the genuine article, you’ll have to make your way to “City of Ghosts,” Matthew Heineman’s documentary about the Syrian activist collective of Raqqa. Raqqa, the provincial eastern Syrian city on the banks of the Euphrates, has for the last three years been the de facto capital of Daesh – the self-anointed Islamic State group or ISIS. The city first drew militants in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad but, in the wake of revolution, Daesh set up camp. Black flags overran the city, as did beheadings, crucifixions and torture.
It has been one of the most impossible places on Earth to practice daily life, let alone journalism. It was here that one of the more inspiring tales of activist journalism was born with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS. This small group of mostly anonymous Raqqa residents became activists, risking and sometimes losing their lives while reporting from the heart of Daesh darkness.
The director of the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land,” Heineman has the good sense to let RBSS leaders tell their own story, making for a bracingly intimate, heartbreaking and ultimately stirring window into the tragedy of modern Syria.
They are mostly young, previously unpolitical men who found the courage to resist when Daesh began terrorizing their home city. They are armed with nothing more than a hashtag and a logo featuring a splash of blood, but RBSS became a vital resource for news inside Raqqa for media outlets around the world.
“We punctured a hole in the darkness,” Abdel-Aziz al-Hamza, the 25-year-old co-founder, narrates.
For the media-savvy Daesh, who made slickly produced videos of their atrocities their trademark recruitment tool, RBSS is more than a nuisance. It’s a threat to its PR of savagery. Stealthily, activist journalists leak news, video and sometimes embarrassing details of Daesh onto social media.
The risk is extreme. One reporter named Moutaz is captured, tortured and shot in public. Other volunteers are assassinated. Their teacher, Naji Jerf, is hunted down on the streets in Turkey.
Their families too are in danger. The father of a cameraman named Hamoud is taken and shot on video. In one of the doc’s most agonizing moments, Heineman films Hamoud watching the video. He is shaken but remains resolute.
Several of the group’s leaders flee to Germany and Turkey, but continue to report remotely via anonymous reporters and sources in Raqqa. Much of the footage shot by Heineman comes from his time in their European safe houses or being celebrated by the Committee to Protect Journalists with the 2015 Press Freedom Award.
In this way, “City of Ghosts” narrows in scope just when it should expanding. Its second half is unable to keep pace with the wider story of Daesh, or to maintain its close-up of Raqqa. That may be inevitable considering the prohibitive violence in the city but Heineman – whose “Cartel Land” intrepidly plunged into vigilante groups along the U.S.-Mexico border – appears more at home on the battlefield than distant from the action.
Still, the heroism on display in “City of Ghosts” is unforgettable, and this documentary remains an ever-essential reminder of the high costs and vital necessity of journalism in this – or any – fight against evil.