"CITY OF GHOSTS" — 3½ stars — Hamoud, Hussam, Mohamad; R (disturbing violent content and some language); Broadway
"City of Ghosts" is not an easy film to watch. Matthew Heineman's documentary on the ISIS occupation of the city of Raqqa is in alternate turns fascinating, heartbreaking, horrifying and inspiring.
Heineman's mission is to profile Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of underground journalists working within what is considered the capital of ISIS influence. The film opens as some of RIBSS's key members are receiving the International Press Freedom Award. In one shot, a red-carpet photographer tries to get one of the stoic journalists to smile. It's supposed to be a moment of celebration, but as "City of Ghosts" unfolds, viewers see why even RIBSS's triumphs feel bittersweet at best.
An early historical passage gives valuable context. Raqqa used to be a relatively happy community in Syria, rich in culture, even under the dictatorship of Suheil al-Hassan. But after the 2012 Arab Spring inspired a resistance movement, a sequence of events created a power vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State in 2014.
"City of Ghosts" follows a handful of underground journalists who came together to expose the harsh realities of life under ISIS occupation. A thin, heavy-bearded man named Aziz becomes the RIBSS spokesman because, according to his explanation, he has the best grasp of the English language. Mohamad was a high school math teacher who couldn't stand by and watch his lifelong home die under oppression. Hamoud — the one who wouldn't smile for the red-carpet photographer — was a shy amateur filmmaker who became one of RIBSS's top clandestine cameramen.
Over 92 minutes, viewers follow these and other members of RIBSS as they struggle to do their work, even as they, their friends and their families, are threatened, and, in some cases, executed for their associations. After their early exposure, Aziz, Mohamad and Hamoud had to flee Raqqa for RIBSS safe houses in nearby Turkey and Germany. "City of Ghosts" profiles a movement divided into two clear inside-outside factions as anonymous correspondents in the city fight poor internet and satellite setups to get their undercover coverage out to the safe houses for distribution.
Heineman, who also directed 2015's "Cartel Land," builds his film on a combination of RIBSS footage along with his material, which fuses together into a straightforward piece that is stunning to consider.
One of the more interesting topics covered in "City of Ghosts" is the push ISIS makes to improve the quality of its media campaign. For all of the guns and shows of traditional force, "City of Ghosts" portrays a struggle that is waged on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter as much as it is in crumbling buildings and darkened alleys.
While the footage and content never resembles the over-the-top graphic nature of many modern-day war movies like "Saving Private Ryan" or "Black Hawk Down," the grainy footage and violent content of "City of Ghosts" is all the more powerful — and horrifying — for its blunt reality. Executions are shown in only a few scenes, and appear bloodless at a distance. Their inclusion feels anything but gratuitous, but their grisly reality should be noted by sensitive audiences.
It's also interesting to observe that Heineman's film, at times, feels like it's happening in a vacuum, and audiences may find themselves wondering what exactly world superpowers are doing to counter the ISIS threat from the outside. Viewers do begin to see some of the international controversy when refugee journalists from RIBSS begin to encounter anti-immigration demonstrations in Germany, but for the most part, "City of Ghosts" is exclusively focused on the efforts of its subject.
Again, "City of Ghosts" is not an easy film to watch, and it isn't supposed to be, but its message may be worth the discomfort.
"City of Ghosts" is rated R for disturbing violent content and some language; running time: 92 minutes.