City of Ghosts Screen 10 articles

City of Ghosts


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  • The filmmaking feels like an afterthought; City of Ghosts comes across more of a presentation device than a film. Because the journalists of RBSS must work in secret, we keep returning to people and laptops in a room; the rest of the runtime is filled with sometimes gruesome archival footage and ISIS propaganda designed to stun you into submission.

  • The film as a whole seems too unfocused, too thin in some respects... to really be a first-rate documentary. When faced with footage of Aziz (the group’s spokesperson) grief-stricken and wracked by physical convulsions, however, I found myself asking: How much does that matter? But then I think of the low-angle shot that follows: of Aziz, slowly craning his neck up at a Syrian flag in the safehouse room. Whether the shot is staged or not, I think I may have my answer.

  • More than just a tribute to RBSS's bravery, City of Ghosts works as a sobering and, in its own way, inspiring look at the sacrifices they're making—to their lives, to their well-being—in order to bring the world the truth about life in Syria under the ISIS regime.

  • For all the horrors on display, it’s the immediate intimacy of tears being shed for their loved ones, as well as the debilitating stress of living under constant death threats, which really hit home. As we register the suffering and the resilience of these reluctant heroes while keeping faith with truth and justice as the incalculable turmoil continues, it puts a human face, a point of contact, on the often overwhelming enormity of Syria’s national tragedy.

  • Heineman's film embeds with some of the group's key members over an extended period. We don't just see their efforts as journalists and activists, we also see them as people — their reactions to the deaths of comrades and family members, and to the disintegration of the city they once called home. This is a deeply unsettling, gripping, and vital documentary.

  • The grainy and grisly images contrast deeply with the Islamic State’s own slick filmic efforts that ironically and blatantly mimic the language of Hollywood movies with unsettling efficiency. Their well-edited propaganda videos feature explosions and gunshots that look much like an action movie trailer or an ad for a video game taking place in a war-torn land. The disparity in the two styles highlights the deception and the lies one organization, and the fight to expose the truth of the other.

  • The work puts these men and their families in danger, and the film does not spare the viewer visions of gruesome suffering in Raqqa and ISIS’s bloody acts of retribution against RBSS. The strength and courage of these men is overwhelming; during the film’s Q&A, one audience member asked, not a little plaintively, “But what can we do?”

  • What might be most horrific about the horrors exposed in Matthew Heineman’s overwhelming City of Ghosts is their familiarity... [The executions are] terrible to behold, but it, of course, is no surprise. It’s what any reasonably informed American knows is going on but likely chooses not to think about. City of Ghosts and Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently demand that you contemplate it — that you find within yourself the capacity for outrage

  • Mr. Heineman marshals some incredible material — including on-the-run undercover cellphone imagery — into a moving record of extraordinary individual and collective heroism, one that eventually emphasizes the personal over the political. You admire Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad and their partisan compatriots. And soon you fear for them too, worrying over their every move as they fight an enemy that is scarily near. Yet as these men come into the focus, Raqqa and the region recede.

  • Ultimately it’s not the violence that is most disturbing. It’s the effect on the central characters of the film, forced into exile, tallying each new death, each tortured friend or family member from afar. There’s one chilling scene when spokesman Abdalaziz Alhamza flicks through a treasured cache of photographs of loved ones and starts to shake, uncontrollably, his body shaking with traumatic stress. The ghosts of his city haunt him.

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