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

"Cartel Land" director Matthew Heineman offers a brutal look at Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered, a group of citizen journalists fighting ISIS.

city of ghosts

“City of Ghosts”

Courtesy of Sundance

Evil spreads faster than justice — that’s one of the things that makes it so sinister. It’s hard to contain, it’s always on the offensive, and it isn’t bound by the tactfulness of the truth. Love must be fought for, hate needs only to be permitted. There’s a lot to sort through in Matt Heineman’s profoundly harrowing “City of Ghosts,” the latest in a long line of recent documentaries about the atrocities that are being committed in Syria, but that grim dichotomy emerges from the chaos intact and more striking than ever. Almost everything else is lost in the rubble, sacrificed at the altar of a film whose horrors are so upsetting that they ultimately represent little more than their own madness.

“City of Ghosts” may be concerned with a death-defying group of citizen journalists, but the film isn’t particularly concerned with context — it wants to be reduced to its broadest pronouncements. Heineman, whose Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land” cut between both sides of the Mexican-American border with the same clumsiness that his new documentary alternates between Raqqa and the refugees who have escaped from it, isn’t here to give you a history lesson. He trusts that you’re aware of ISIS, and at least passingly familiar with the barbaric inhumanity that has come to define Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Heineman takes his cues from his subjects, a death-defying crew of citizen journalists who call themselves Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). To a man, the people in the group can’t be bothered to split hairs; the situation is too dire for them to haggle over the finer points of their misery, to argue where Bashar al-Assad stops and ISIS begins. The perpetrators aren’t relevant, only the ideology they spread, and the tools they use to spread it.

RBSS is small, and none of its two dozen members are professionally trained members of the media, but it’s clear from the start that they’re one of the most vital journalistic resources in the world today (and not just because Heineman introduces them as they’re receiving the 2015 International Press Freedom Award from David Remnick in New York).

Their humility is striking. Aziz, the de facto spokesman due to the decentness of his English, is a gangly college dropout who never expected to join a revolution. Mohamad is a former teacher with a kind, round face and an infinite reservoir of patience. Hamoud is a cameraman who’s all too familiar with the power of images. Some nights he sits in the dark and re-watches the taunting video of an ISIS soldier executing his father; it was designed to intimidate him into returning home and selling out his comrades, but it only strengthens his resolve.

Many of the film’s most emotional scenes find Aziz and his friends hearing terrible news from back home and choking back tears as they prepare to post about it online; their sorrow is impossible to fully convey, but it never interferes with their work.

Heineman never went to Syria (that would have been suicide), and so most of the footage in his film consists of him sitting in the relative safety of their secret hotel room with this trio of RBSS journalists and observing as the men file stories from their side of the Turkish-Syrian border. It may not sound like especially dangerous work — it certainly doesn’t compare with the members of their group who are still in Raqqa, the ones who risk death on a daily basis in order to capture and smuggle out information, photographs, and videos of the violence that has snuffed the life out of their hometown — but jihadists are actively hunting them down and assassinating their colleagues in the street. Their lives are lived in shadows.

And on the internet. RBSS is a web 2.0 phenomenon; it exists on Twitter and YouTube and disseminates footage to mainstream outlets that can put it on television. ISIS tells the world that the citizens of Raqqa are thriving at the center of the caliphate, but the evidence tells a very different story. Roughly half of Heineman’s film is devoted to images that RBSS has surreptitiously recorded from within the ISIS stronghold; they’re as gruesome as you might expect, if not more gruesome than you can imagine.

But the monstrousness of these ruined bodies and casual beheadings pales in comparison to the slickly produced video that ISIS spreads themselves. They capture decapitations with crane shots. They make propaganda ads full of combat scenes that rival anything Michael Bay has ever made (and easily outclass Peter Berg). They train toddlers to decapitate their stuffed animals, and they post the clips to the internet for the likes. Yukio Mishima wrote about the harmony between pen and sword, and these homicidal fundamentalists are dragging that ethos into the digital age.

“City of Ghosts” fails to find much rhyme in a pernicious crusade that doesn’t have any reason, and it often feels like Heineman is (understandably) too overwhelmed by the stories he’s capturing to help shape them into something greater than the sum of their parts. But no other film has so convincingly, or so urgently, illustrated the role that media will play in our fight for the future. Evil is banal, but how it evolves is fascinating, and how we evolve to fight back will shape our world long after ISIS has been extinguished from it.

Grade: B

“City of Ghosts” is now playing in theaters.

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