City of Ghosts – Telling the Truth of a City at War

92 Minutes - Director: Matthew Heineman

City of Ghosts is an extraordinary film that manages to convey an inspirational message out of the cauldron of horror and slaughter created by ISIS. Made by filmmaker Matthew Heineman whose last film, Cartel Land, about Mexico’s drug wars was nominated for an Academy Award, City of Ghosts follows the incredibly brave citizen journalists who came together to chronicle the abuses of ISIS in Raqqa in northern Syria. LAWAC screened the film on Thursday July 13th for members. Calling themselves “Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered” (RBSS), these ordinary middle class citizens with no journalistic backgrounds took it upon themselves to ensure that ISIS could not get away with its horrendous crimes in silence, unnoticed and unreported to the outside world.

At great personal risk they shoot video of ISIS executions in the center of Raqqa, of men being crucified, beheaded, shot, subjected to amputations and beatings - and then they post the video online for all to see. As ISIS gained in ferocity and foreign journalists stopped coming to Syria, soon RBSS was one of the few sources left for video footage of ISIS. They were used by the Arab news channels, CNN and the US networks and other TV stations around the world. One of the most chilling scenes in the film is footage of a toddler – perhaps three years old – wearing ISIS garb and taking a knife to decapitate a teddy bear, reenacting the regular decapitations of ISIS enemies in Raqqa’s main square.

Aziz, one of the founders of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said in a Q&A session after the screening that “only 1% of Raqqa joined ISIS - the rest didn’t join, but they remained silent” - mostly out of fear. He said that the citizen journalists of RBSS decided they had “the duty to give these people voice, to break the silence around Raqqa.”

The costs were high - after one of their number was arrested at a checkpoint and RBSS footage was found on his laptop, the man was executed, and others on his computer contact list were targeted. A number fled Raqqa for Gaziantep in Turkey, across the border from Syria. But even there they are not safe, and several were assassinated by ISIS gunmen sent to find them.

Aziz lost a brother in a failed escape attempt from Syria, and Hamoud, another RBSS member who also came to the Q&A, had to endure watching a video of ISIS interrogating his father and then executing him because they could not get to his son. Hamoud has watched the video over and over, and in the Q&A he explained - “Watching the video of my father and my brother and our colleagues gave me power to push on. There are thousands of people every day getting killed by ISIS. What happened to us personally is a small symbol."

From left to right: Council President Terry McCarthy, RBSS members Aziz and Hamoud and executive producer Molly Thompson.

Ultimately many of the RBSS journalists flee Turkey for Germany, where they believe they will be safer from ISIS gunmen. But they continue posting stories and videos from Raqqa that are still sent to them by those who remained in Raqqa. “It has been difficult,” said Aziz, as ISIS has shut down internet cafes and monitors internet use by private citizens. Any suspicion that people are filming for RBSS means torture and death. But they think it is worth it, both to tell the world what is going on, and also to counter the ISIS propaganda that purports to show – in very well-produced videos – a life of joy and freedom for Muslims in the new caliphate. RBSS shows that this is no new “Garden of Eden”, but a charnel house run by depraved young men addicted to violence, power and unspeakable cruelty.

Aziz was strongly critical of a lack of western response to the conflict in Syria – “It is amazing we live in the 21st century yet we still allow chemical weapons, barrel bombs and rockets to kill thousands of civilians.” He says that ISIS will be pushed out of Raqqa in a matter of months, and still hopes to go back to Raqqa someday to live. In the meantime he and his colleagues in the RBSS group have shown that ordinary human voices do matter, that real journalism does matter in the face of the “fake news” propagated by ISIS and the Assad regime and that there is value in pursuing truth, even under the most difficult circumstances. Heineman’s film is a masterful and moving tribute to the bravery of these citizen journalists, and an inspiration to all the men and women around the world who attempt to report the truth even as they are threatened by powerful interests who would like to keep them silenced.