Critics' Pick

City of Ghosts (R)

Documentary 90 min. July 7, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
What might be most horrific about the horrors exposed in Matthew Heineman's overwhelming City of Ghosts is their familiarity. The film documents the efforts of citizen journalists to alert the world to ISIS's ravaging of Raqqa, their Syrian hometown, which Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his extremist followers seized four years ago. With cell phones, video cameras and spotty Wi-Fi , the courageous young men of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently revealed the bloody truth of ISIS's perversion of Islam. Here are public executions: bodies chucked from buildings, kneeling hostages shot on camera, men and women publicly flayed, heads spiked on a fence while the bodies rot below. It's terrible to behold but it of course is no surprise. It's what any reasonably informed American knows is going on but likely chooses not to think about. City of Ghosts and Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently demand that you contemplate it -- that you find within yourself the capacity for outrage.

Unsurprising or not, that footage has outraged ISIS, which has endeavored to cut Raqqa off from the rest of the world and to exterminate the citizen journalists. Much of the original RBSS crew long ago fled Raqqa and Syria for Europe, where, in safe houses, they post to the internet reports from back home. "They executed our brother and father so that we'd stop," says a young man named Hassan, "but we're going to continue."

Heineman's own footage is strong, too. He shows us his expat heroes making new lives. They field calls from Raqqans, type up news reports, wince at photographs of air strikes. They wait to hear who has died; they are harrowed witnessing an anti-refugee rally in Berlin. Heineman's film is invaluable, as both moral instruction and documented history.
Matthew Heineman IFC Films

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