‘City of Ghosts’ is a haunting look at life under ISIS

“City of Ghosts” follows underground citizen journalists in the ISIS-occupied city of Raqqa, Syria.
“City of Ghosts” follows underground citizen journalists in the ISIS-occupied city of Raqqa, Syria.

Matthew Heineman’s last documentary, the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land” from 2015, was a harrowing journey into the narcotics netherworld along our southern border.

His latest, “City of Ghosts,” is equally unnerving and even more moving as it chronicles the courageous citizen journalists in Raqqa, Syria, who stood up to ISIS when it took over the city and made it the capital of a self-declared Islamic State.

Early in the film, there are shots of Raqqa in happier times, before the Arab Spring of uprisings against president Bashar Hafez al-Assad that ultimately led to ISIS swooping in and filling a power vacuum. Raqqa seemed much like any other city and the young men at the center of this story — some of whom would later give their lives — were like young, carefree people everywhere, having no inkling of what fate had in store for them.

But as the gruesome, oppressive reality of what living under the heavy boot heel of ISIS sank in, Aziz, Mohammad, Hussam, Hamoud, Hamoud’s brother Hassan, and others didn’t just complain to themselves behind closed doors. They picked up their smartphones and cameras and took to the internet to launch Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), an online news organization dedicated to documenting ISIS atrocities.

Even though RBSS tried to operate furtively, ducking in and out of the shadows and crevices of the Islamic State, ISIS made it a mission to eradicate them.

Several of their contributors and supporters were murdered, forcing many of the remaining RBSS loyalists to flee. Some landed in Turkey, before joining others in Germany, though distance was no guarantee of security as the reach of ISIS was long.

That’s where Heineman picks up their story as they try to make new lives in Europe and even earn notice in the U.S. In 2015, they were honored with the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award.

Yet while they enjoy relative safety and even a degree of celebrity, they can’t shake the perpetual cloud of sadness and grief as the torture and slaughter — often involving their family members as victims — continues back home.

Heineman powerfully captures the agonizing sense of displacement these men must feel. Gaunt, lanky, chain-smoking RBSS founder Aziz is an emotionally wounded, haunted figure. The “ghosts” in the title doesn’t just apply to those who have been killed in Raqqa.

But it’s the RBSS footage from the streets of Raqqa that is the most unforgettable. That they secretly filmed the worst human acts — people being shot point blank in the head — and then uploaded them for the world to see demands a kind of bravery and intestinal fortitude few probably have.

These guys — and, yes, except for one of their wives, it is all men in this film though there have been many women involved in Syrian citizen journalism as well — deserve a co-directing credit as so many of the film’s remarkable moments are from their footage.

Still, “City of Ghosts” stands as a testament to the power of good journalism, not just in Syria but everywhere.

Exclusive: Angelika Dallas

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar

City of Ghosts

 1/2  (out of five)

Director: Matthew Heineman

Rated: R (disturbing violent content, some strong language)

Running time: 92 min.