Tuxedoed journalists of the New York variety shuffle along the red carpet of the annual International Press Freedom Awards in the Grand Hyatt. The black tie event hardly seems like the appropriate venue to celebrate the accomplishments of the RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), a group of Syrian citizen-journalists whose concentrated efforts exposed the imminent threat that ISIS presented not only to Syria, but the world. And so Matthew Heineman begins City of Ghosts with a measure of sardonic humor as the RBSS’ guerrilla activism is recognized within the hushed confines of a posh dinner gala. Revolutions, as they were, are of a peculiar breed.
Before the RBSS accepts their award, Heineman traces their origins during the Syrian Civil War of 2011. A surge of protests calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad would cause civil unrest within Syria. And it’s in the city of Raqqa, during this unrest, where ISIS’ ideology would propagate. Heineman, along with the cadre of would-be journalists he follows (which includes a simple math teacher, a videographer, and university students), showcase how ISIS’ exploitation of a disenfranchised community provided them with the ideal terrain to disseminate their doctrine. Despair makes for fertile soil as Heineman explores the consequences of ISIS’ stronghold in Raqqa.
Heineman’s filmmaking approach is cerebral and conscientious in what’s a careful balancing act of micro and macro concerns. His efforts to present and condense Syria’s historical tableau is vital as it provides a rich context to understand City of Ghosts’ latter half, which deals primarily with the difficult personal realities that RBSS journalists confront. As RBSS members move from Syria to Turkey to Germany, their lives and those that they love are in perpetual duress. They’re presented with threats from ISIS that are routinely broadcasted on the organization’s website, suggesting that these journalists are subject to unrelenting surveillance.
Given the perpetual sense of dread that encircles the RBSS, it so frequently feels like City of Ghosts moves at a rapid clip. It’s a moment late in the film where the anxiety that a particular RBSS journalist endures, when the film pauses to capture the personal toll of their work. With photographs of murdered informants, friends, and family, a journalist shakes uncontrollably in a display of the cumulative pressure of looking over his shoulder all the time. For a film propelled by procedure and intellectualism, this moment of emotional catharsis is strikingly moving. Heineman’s previous work (Cartel Land) similarly explored the drug trade with an anxious and rigorously academic approach. City of Ghosts’ moment of relief is not only unexpected, but deserved.
Unfortunately, Heineman sacrifices formalism for some rather bland text-heavy moments designed to convey as much information as possible. Heineman’s framing of RBSS’ origins to their global recognition also seems to be missing necessary components in between, in what frequently feels like a thinly united thematic device that bares no particular weight on the integrity of his material. These qualms, of course, have mostly to do with a desire for more content rather than the condensed crash course we’re offered here. Heineman’s gift as a filmmaker remains in the profoundly visceral quality of his material. Whatever efforts at concision, whether it be his own or the want of a producers, attentuates the potency of his work.