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City of Ghosts – Film Review

City of Ghosts – Film Review by Pat V.

Director: Matthew Heineman

Matthew Heineman’s documentary, City of Ghosts, tells the moving story of a group of ordinary people caught up in the tragedy and confusion of the war in Syria and how they came together to form a journalist collective to tell the world of the plight of their families and friends trapped in the city of Raqqa. Through personal interview and smuggled video footage we see how their lives have been transformed and how the thriving, vibrant city they grew up in has been reduced to a heap of rubble where the population is forced to struggle, hand to mouth, to survive.

The opening shots of the film show us Raqqa in 2012, a normal, bustling Middle Eastern city. We meet some of the main participants of the film, a school teacher, a journalist, a man who describes himself as “an introvert” who has a passion for computers. They chart the first signs of disquiet in the city, how a group of school children wrote slogans criticising President Assad and were arrested and tortured by the police. How from there a resistance movement was formed and when a new anti-Assad force, now known as ISIS, arrived in the city, they were at first treated as important allies with a common cause.

Soon, however, it became apparent that they had welcomed a Trojan Horse into their city. As ISIS infiltrated every aspect of life, civil liberties disappeared and their extreme fundamentalist views were imposed on the population. Internet and televisions were banned, satellite discs destroyed, and people were routinely stopped and searched and if any “suspicious” material was found on their phones they were immediately executed.

A group of men who escaped from the city came together to create an internet site called “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS)  in an attempt to expose the human rights violations by ISIS and fight the terrorist group’s misinformation campaigns in their home country. Fleeing initially across the border to Turkey they remained in contact with some friends still trapped in the city who were occasionally able to contact them by phone or send videos in an effort to tell the world what was happening in their city. When members of RBSS themselves become targets of ISIS and a leading member was assassinated in his Turkish workplace, some of the members decided to travel to Germany to continue their efforts to let the world know of the destruction of their country.

We have become almost immune in recent years to footage of the atrocities committed in Iraq and Syria but what is remarkable about this film is that it personalises the tragic stories for us. We get to know the contributors and empathise with their plight. We meet Hamoud who watches over and over the video of his father being forced to confess that he is “the father of the traitor Hamoud al-Mousa” before being shot in the head. He tells us of a brother, also shot by ISIS, and of another brother who drowned in an attempt to escape to a place of safety. All of the people interviewed recount equally tragic stories.

This is a film that deserves to be widely seen even if it is not always easy to watch. There are disturbing scenes of beheadings, crucifixions and young children encouraged to shoot kneeling prisoners. It is also shocking to see the hatred with which the asylum seekers are sometimes met in their country of refuge in rallies reminiscent of Nazi Germany. City of Ghosts is an important film and a tribute to the courageous men and women who put their lives at risk in an effort to give a voice to a city that the world seems to have forgotten.

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