Film Review: ‘City of Ghosts’

Relevant and uncompromising as any well-made documentary concerning ISIS, City of Ghosts goes for the jugular, inundating viewers with often uncensored executions and scenes of devastation that at times overshadow the film’s subjects, a group of activists risking their lives to report human rights abuses within the ISIS occupied Syrian city of Raqqa. 

City of Ghosts, directed by Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land), follows Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of citizen journalists, as they combat ISIS propaganda and burn through cartons of cigarettes like it’s Mad Men. After ISIS murdered an RBSS member, the activists fled their home city of Raqqa to Germany and Turkey where they continue to operate despite numerous death threats.

RBSS, born out of the Syrian Civil War, uses anonymous sources inside Raqqa to provide footage from the de facto capital of ISIS. The mission is twofold: shatter the ISIS promise of paradise for would-be jihadis, and provide the world with quite possibly the only reliable source of information from the war-torn city.

Tragedy liters the lives of the RBSS members, and the documentary is strongest when focusing on their transition from everyday people to exiles, on the triumph of these individuals over evil, and on its costs. One member was a high school math teacher. Now he watches half a world away as the children of Raqqa beg for food or become child soldiers. ISIS murdered the father of another member, who inexplicably finds comfort in watching the video of his fathers execution. Perhaps it reminds him of what he fights for.

But while the documentary could not be more relevant, the work of RBSS more important, the excessive amount of real executions shown (granted some some scenes cut away and only one was particularly graphic) distracted from the focus of the film, ostensibly RBSS.

I get it—the filmmakers want a visceral reaction from the audience over the depravation of ISIS and the terrible state of Raqqa today. And I’m not squeamish either, but in my mind a strong line exists between watching fictional movie violence, and seeing the decapitated corpses of real people strewn about the pavement, their heads impaled on an iron fence for display. If I ever want to watch a snuff film, I have a working internet connection.

While it is a necessity for the world to know and remember the atrocities committed by ISIS, City of Ghosts, in my opinion, fails at achieving the appropriate balance between the evils we are capable of, and the courage of those who fight them—a harrowing blemish on an otherwise important film.

The film opens July 7.

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