I grew up with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather who shaped our opinions and our discussions. We as an audience had trust in what they had to say, and more importantly in how they delivered it. Today, the news needs to be delivered as quickly as possible, and corrections issued if a mistake is discovered. It has become so much a part of my everyday life that I have all but abandoned traditional news outlets. Despite this, I find myself living inside the vacuum created by social media and online news media and yet, I’m still all-too-well aware of what’s happening in the world. However, I find that online media introduces a high-level of bias colored by a cacophony of voices rather than one person delivering the news each night. That’s why, when I sat down to watch “City of Ghosts,” I was quite taken by surprise. I was only peripherally aware of the Arab Spring rising of ISIL and its dangerous stranglehold on the Middle East. I was not aware of a group of citizen journalists who have risked everything to raise awareness of the occupation of Raqqa, a city deep inside Syria on the Euphrates. Academy Award – nominated director Matthew Heineman managed to open my eyes very quickly to the true nature of both sides of this conflict as he lays out ISIL’s ascension to power and the rapid growth of citizen journalist network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).
After opening the film with the group receiving the International Press Freedom Award in 2015, Heineman goes on to describe ISIL’s rise to power, appeasing a war-torn populous looking for freedom. The state-run news agency portrays life in Raqqa as peaceful, where basic services meet the needs of the people. RBBS starts capturing footage of ISIL’s atrocities; using social media, they work tirelessly to create an online campaign attracting the attention of global media outlets and the ire of ISIL.
With unprecedented access to the core members of the group, Heineman depicts their everyday struggles to flee Syria for a safe haven in Turkey and Germany while the team remaining in Raqqa struggle to anonymously capture footage and photos of the atrocities that ISIL forces are inflicting. The team that remains in Raqqa upload the photos and videos of the atrocities to the teams in Europe.
As ISIL becomes aware of the clandestine efforts inside their borders we discover that there is truly no safe haven, for anyone. In Raqqa, they order the citizens to destroy satellite dishes restricting internet access and cellular communications. On the European continent, they execute members of RBBS.
In its simplest form, the picture Heineman paints is that of a propaganda war similar to one the British had with Nazi Germany during the early stages of WWII. History is repeating itself. Here, time is on the side of RBSS as they viral nature of social media works in their favor. The more they post, the more it puts innocents in other countries at risk as evidenced by the attacks in France and in the United States. And, it puts their own family members in harm’s way.
The efforts of this citizen journalist network bring to light real-world problems. The images and the flow of the narrative convey the situation succinctly. I could imagine audiences who watch this would be shell shocked at best. Not for the feint at heart, Matthew Heineman touches a raw nerve here and it will stick with you long after you leave the theater.
5 out of 5 stars.
This review was written for and originally appeared on www.phoenixfilmfestival.com.