City of Ghosts (4 stars)

City of Ghosts

Matthew Heineman helms this essential documentary about the fight to liberate Raqqa

For the residents of Raqqa, Syria, the Arab Spring that began in 2010 did not bring about any of the promised freedoms; instead, it made things catastrophically worse. The downfall of President Bashar al-Assad brought with it a power vacuum into which Islamic State quickly moved, isolating the city from the rest of the world and ruling their new territory with unchecked violence.

With news of the ISIS stranglehold – which involves systematic public executions of anyone deemed a threat to the regime – failing to make it out of the city, a group of citizen journalists going by the name 'Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently' (RBSS) took it upon themselves to document the horrific realities unfolding on their streets, and release it across social media for the world to witness.

Documentarian Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) follows a handful of these men, now driven to seek refuge outside of Syria, as they speak about their ongoing fight to keep Raqqa in the headlines. While they all have their own individual reasons for becoming activists, they are united in their determination to keep working, even when so many of their colleagues have lost their lives. A harrowing scene in which two of their number watch an ISIS propaganda video of their father's execution speaks to the huge personal cost of such social responsibility.

Indeed, while RBSS's footage of extreme human cruelty is unbearably difficult to watch, City of Ghosts is essential viewing. Like perhaps no other film before, it brings home the brutality of Islamic State, and the threat it poses to ordinary, innocent people caught under its regime; and, as demonstrated by a terrible scene of German neo-Nazis confronting Syrian refugees, those who would escape it.

Crucially, however, it also celebrates the power of community activism and journalism, and hammers home the need to help those fleeing such intolerable terror. At a time when such things are being denounced not just in war-torn Syria, but in supposedly democratic countries in the West, it's a message that desperately needs to be heard.

Selected release from Fri 21 Jul.

City of Ghosts

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • 1h 30min
  • Directed by: Matthew Heineman

Documentary following a group of activists in Raqqa after the city is taken over by ISIS. While footage of extreme human cruelty is unbearably difficult to watch, City of Ghosts is essential viewing. Crucially, however, it also celebrates the power of community activism and journalism, and hammers home the need to help…

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