Film Review: ‘City of Ghosts’ Is a Harrowing, Vital Account of Terror and Resistance

Two years after examining the violence of the Mexican drug trade in “Cartel Land,” Matthew Heineman is back with another bracingly intimate account of an ongoing state of terror. With “City of Ghosts,” the talented documentary filmmaker is once again at his unflinching best, documenting the rise of ISIS in Syria. In this hard-hitting chronicle, he follows the efforts of an activist group fighting to reclaim their homeland from these radical extremists. Through their work emerges a story of true heroes, displaying admirable courage against seemingly insurmountable odds.

The brave men and women at the heart of the film are members of the movement “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Slightly” (RBSS). Comprising a network of citizen journalists, they have covertly documented the atrocities committed by ISIS, using little more than their smartphones. Despite the serious risk of public executions and beheadings, they are determined to take back their once peaceful home of Raqqa. But as their efforts attract international attention, the ISIS threat expands. From their roots in the Arab Spring of 2010 to the terrorist attacks across the globe, “City of Ghosts” is an unflinching look at a force of evil that reveals both the dark and valiant sides of human nature.

While the danger of ISIS is widely known, the background of their emergence in Syria is critical to understanding their ideology and influence. As such, though RBSS is the main subject of the film, their formation is given valuable context in the recent social and political climate of Syria. Structured with a keen focus on the underlying power struggle, “City of Ghosts” thus shows that RBSS is just one player in a series of rebellions in the country. The first catalyst was the revolution that sought to remove the corrupt President Bashar al-Assad, leaving the country vulnerable to the opportunistic ISIS. Claiming to offer a promising alternative, it was soon clear that their intentions were guided by dangerously extremist Islamic beliefs. Quickly realizing their oppressive motives, RBSS then fought back by recording evidence of the horrifying conditions of ISIS rule.

From this foundation, Heineman wields his impressive strengths as a filmmaker, assembling powerful images that paint an unforgettable picture of the atmosphere and the various personalities involved. The story of the Syrian revolution, for example, is accompanied by a visceral shot of the toppling of a statue of Assad’s father. Meanwhile, footage of brutal executions are followed by heartbreaking scenes of grief.

“City of Ghosts” is therefore unsettling and nerve-wracking by design. But the film also conveys the urgency of live reporting. In doing so, Heineman uses the film as an platform for the brave members of RBSS, some of them forced into exile. Their efforts at home and abroad are the driving force behind the narrative, admirably asserting their voice against effective ISIS propaganda. Indeed, one of the most shocking revelations is that ISIS recruits members through glossy Hollywood-style videos that actually celebrate the violence used in service of their cause.

Ultimately, it is this keen interest in the spectrum of conflicting perspectives that makes “City of Ghosts” such a successful and important documentary. Through ISIS and RBSS, Heineman gives us contrasting interpretations of heroism. But even further than that, he also implicates anti-refugee sentiments in Europe and American air strikes in exacerbating the dire situation affecting civilians. Through this objective lens, Heineman therefore speaks to the core mission of RBSS. Knowledge is power. And what you do with it can tremendously impact the world around you.

“City of Ghosts” opens in select theaters July 7.

GRADE: (★★★½)