By: David Meija
This documentary focuses on the story of a few journalists who run a blog titled “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”, and compares two forms of media: the blog and ISIS’ videos. This creates an underlying dynamic that shows the true power of media and just how important the internet is.
The film, City of Ghosts, provides the audience with crude images of life in Raqqa, ISIS’ tactics, and life on edge. In some instances, there are men tied to trees or lined up along one another with members from ISIS ready to shoot them in the head. There is also footage that captures the essence of life in Raqqa such as a sea of children holding buckets filled with water against a concrete wall as if they were chickens at a factory, or civilians gathered around a dead body collecting sand. On the other side of the spectrum, the director, Matthew Heineman, also provides the audience with a few men who are behind the blog showing how brave they are to continue spreading the word despite death threats and the murdering of their colleagues.
Even while Heineman succeeds at truly showing polarizing sides, the images are morbid and will cause audience members to cringe or walk out of the theater. That is where the City of Ghosts loses itself. The film tends to juggle between the journalists and their conflicts as well as how these conflicts relate to ISIS. At times there is so much of ISIS that it becomes redundant because the footage of the journalists does not balance the clips from ISIS. In some instances, it is just journalists smoking cigarettes while on the computer. I noticed not just this constant onscreen smoking but other interactions between our main subjects that seemed superfluous such as: friends playing in the street, a long shot of a man falling asleep as his phone slips out of his hand. One can assume Heineman likely shot this footage in order to give the audience a breath and to characterize these men, but it wasn’t enough to justify making the audience endure the deaths of so many people die. City of Ghosts presents powerful points that could’ve been used to tell such a powerful story and how media can truly play a part in making a difference. These men at RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently) put their life on the line and have to move to different countries yet, I don’t feel this was made urgent enough. The one time I felt the need to get out of my chair and go defend these people is when they showed children killing adults and not only that, they showed them being trained; they showed the children in the streets being lead by grown men. The director allowed the audience to see this transformation from children to murderers/soldiers and that was the most powerful moment in the film for me.
Heineman presents a powerful and relevant argument, but loses his way when images of ISIS committing crimes become repetitive and unjustifiably uncomfortable. There is a great story to be told here that transcends media and more closely discusses how badly people want peace and what they’re willing to sacrifice, but I don’t think ramming images of people held at gunpoint multiple times over without making it worthwhile is the best way to go about it. If the flaws of this film are disregarded for a moment, one will see that at its core it is a story about courage and risk which is something every audience member can take away from the film.
If I had to rate the film, I’d give it a 3.5/5.