The opening minutes of City of Ghosts show Matthew Heineman on the same showy form that made his Cartel Land so interesting. Key members of Syrian anti-ISIS journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) prepare to receive an award in New York; purposeful editing evokes only bittersweetness.
Soon, a more measured rhythm settles as we navigate, for 90 absorbing minutes, the first year of RBSS. The entirety is narrated by key members, dislocated to Germany; Heineman takes a respectful, observational backseat, simply responding to the material his committed and open subjects give him. One gets the feeling he, like the viewer, simply needs time to process things.
The story, as assembled, therefore reflects the refugees’ shifting situations, with a naturalistic combination of horror, tenderness and the vicarious heroic kick of seeing journalists sticking it to wrongdoers. The brilliance lies in these tonalities: for every good-guy thrill, there’s another very unaesthetic horror to check it. Heineman teases us with flavours of conspiracy thriller, but always returns to exhaustion, and that deep diasporic melancholy that must come from constantly weeping for your country.
This is an abstractedly inspiring film, though not uplifting. Often shown are articles being published and videos uploaded – little bookmarks in the resistance narrative. But a parallel motif is simply death: of loved ones and collaborators. The contrast creates a nightmarish transactional dimension, conspicuously overlooked on our circling back to the glitzy back-patting Manhattanite ceremony. As ISIS occupation continues, oceans away, the toll outweighs the triumph.
City of Ghosts welds careful style to its subjects and their activism, ebbing and flowing with vitality and dread. Its uniquely powerful climax suggests, with jaw-dropping clarity, that small acts of heroism could just be that: heroic, and small. For all his strength, Aziz al-Hamza knows that Raqqa is still being slaughtered.
CAST: Aziz al-Hamza, Abu Mohamed, Hamoud Al-Mousa
DIRECTOR: Matthew Heineman
SYNOPSIS: Matthew Heineman’s followup to his award-winning Cartel Land, City of Ghosts takes an immersive look at the anonymous activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, formed in Syria in 2014 to take on ISIS.