City of Ghosts (2017)

Review #1,498

Director:  Matthew Heineman
Plot:  With deeply personal access, this is the story of a brave group of citizen journalists as they face the realities of life undercover, on the run, and in exile, risking their lives to stand up against one of the greatest evils in the world today.

Genre:  Documentary / War
Awards:  Nom. for Grand Jury Prize - Documentary (Sundance)
Runtime:  92 mins
Rating:  M18 for for disturbing violent content, and for some language.
International Sales:  Cinetic Media
Singapore Distributor:  Anticipate Pictures

The director of Cartel Land (2015), a documentary that explored the drug problem manifesting along the U.S.-Mexican border, delivers another winner in City of Ghosts, a harrowing if illuminating work on the courageous efforts of a group of citizen journalists in Raqqa, Syria, who are fighting the war against terrorism, namely ISIS, with their own arsenal of laptops, phones and willpower.

As the old adage says: the pen is mightier than the sword… that is, until the sword slices the pen up with remorseless intent.  Which is a constant fear for these people (the group is called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”, or RBSS) who operate both in the epicentre of Raqqa, and also in safe-houses in Turkey and Germany.

The RBSS are people like you and me.  One of them is even a math teacher with apathy towards politics, until the day the Assad regime was toppled, creating a vacuum for ISIS to set root.  With unbelievable disregard for human life, ISIS's unstoppable rampage of murder and torture sparked the formation of RBSS, which seeks to present the harsh reality of life in Raqqa.

What’s most fascinating for me is the battle of ideologies through the use of online media—on one end, RBSS tells the truth in whatever way possible; on the other end, ISIS paints a beautiful picture of prosperity and martyrdom, influencing the weak to join their ranks to fight against “the infidels”.

City of Ghosts chronicles this heightened sense of online media ‘politicking’—a phenomena marked by propaganda and fake news that on future hindsight surely would characterise the 2010s—with its own sense of aesthetical immediacy.  It largely contains handheld footage shot by the RBSS, some of which are highly disturbing.  The camera also focuses on a few RBSS personalities as we get to know their personal stories.

With many of their brave compatriots dead, they are resigned to living in constant threat, with a bounty on their heads.  Death can come prematurely, yet they persevere with their important work.  City of Ghosts may look and feel like any other standard-fare documentary about personal stakes in a larger political crisis, but because of its sheer timeliness, it completely validates the medium, and at the same time, vitalises the work of the RBSS. 

Verdict:  This harrowing if illuminating documentary is one of the medium’s finest examples of citizen journalism, chronicling the battle against a violent ideological war.




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