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‘City of Ghosts’: How Documentarian Matthew Heineman Captured the Story of Heroic Citizen Journalists

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The Oscar-nominated director of "Cartel Land" brings IndieWire inside how he filmed his latest documentary without a crew.

City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts

Photo courtesy of Studios / A&E IndieFilms / IFC Films

Matthew Heineman’s new documentary, “City of Ghosts,” is about the citizen journalists behind ”Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” whose social media dispatches have been one of the only ways the outside world has been able to track the atrocities happening inside Syria. Heineman embedded himself with these men, who risked everything, as they go through the gut-wrenching job of reporting what is happening in their hometown.

For Heineman, who films by himself without any crew, shooting “City of Ghosts” in many ways was a different filmmaking experience than his Oscar nominated “Cartel Land” where he was embedded in the citizen uprising against Mexican drug cartels. We recently check in with Heineman to find how he approached this particular filmmaking challenge.

READ MORE: One-Person Crew: The Pros and Cons of Making a Documentary By Yourself

City of Ghosts

“City of Ghosts”

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / A&E IndieFilms / IFC Films.

What camera and lens did you use?

C300 Mark II, Canon 17-55mm and Canon 24-105mm.

Why was this the right camera kit for the job? 

The C300 (which I used for “Cartel Land”) and C300 Mark II (which I used for “City of Ghosts”) are both cinema quality cameras that also give me flexibility and mobility. They are small enough to use without a rig, which allows me to shoot in the “run and gun” style I use to shoot verité. I don’t think there’s any other camera I could have used to achieve what I wanted to with these films: a very visceral yet cinematic you-are-there experience.

What was the biggest challenge in shooting this movie? 

This was by far the hardest film I’ve made — between the logistics of production and the massive security concerns, it was constantly a balancing act in terms of when, where, and how to shoot.

How was shooting this film different than “Cartel Land”?

While shooting “Cartel Land” in Mexico, I was in many physically dangerous situations: shootouts in the streets of Michoacán, meth labs, places of torture, etc. The danger in “City of Ghosts” was much more amorphous – you could always feel the presence of ISIS, but I never saw them face-to-face. Much of “City of Ghosts” takes place as members of the group were on the run escaping Syria and ultimately landing in Europe. Because of this and the nature of their work, much of the drama takes place in safe houses and behind computers and cell phones. It was challenging to make these situations — which could be quite static — dynamic. Over the months that we were filming, I tried to find these dynamic moments that could, ultimately, make the film more cinematic.

Matthew Heineman shooting "City of Ghosts"

Matthew Heineman shooting “City of Ghosts”

Courtesy of Our Time Projects

READ MORE: ‘City of Ghosts’ Review: An Unspeakably Gruesome Look Past the Banality of Evil

What did you learn shooting “Cartel Land” that you brought with you to “Ghosts”?

For “Cartel Land,” I spoke marginally conversational Spanish. For “City of Ghosts,” I really didn’t speak any Arabic. It obviously made it more difficult, but I also found it to be an advantage while shooting. It allowed me to focus on the emotion of the scene as opposed to just chasing dialogue. Syrians are quite expressive in how they communicate — they wear so much of what they say on their face — so I found that interesting to try and follow, even if I didn’t totally understand the words that were being expressed. Nonetheless, during breaks and before and after shoots, I always checked in with some of the group members who spoke English and they would explain what was happening, or what had just happened, so that I was always in the loop.

What recent documentary have you seen that you really admired how it was shot? What was it about it that caught your attention?

A recent film that I thought was exquisitely shot was “Fire At Sea.” The way Gianfranco Rosi held those long, intimate moments was so affecting to me; rather than explicating the situation on Lampedusa, he crafts a heart-wrenching impressionistic portrait of life on the rocky island. And I loved his beautifully composed, patient shooting style.

Below you can watch Heineman’s talk with IndieWire at the Canon Creative Studio at Sundance Film Festival, where “City of Ghosts” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership celebrating the art of cinematography. To Learn more click here.

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