‘City of Ghosts’ Director Matthew Heineman Explains How to Fight ISIS Without Bombs

His acclaimed documentary played as part of the IDA screening series.
Matthew Heineman
Matthew Heineman
International Documentary Association

Matthew Heineman had just been nominated for an Academy Award and wasn’t sure what to do next. The “Cartel Land” director was interested in ISIS the same way he’d been interested in Mexico’s drug war, but struggled to find a story with a human element. Then he read a New Yorker article about the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently and, in his words, “literally got on a train the night that I read the article in order to meet them.”

That’s probably why, during a Q&A session at the International Documentary Association’s 2017 screening series, Heineman said that “the subject often picks me” rather than the other way around.

IndieWire’s Anne Thompson moderated the session, in which Heineman issues ranging from whether he himself might be in personal danger as a result of making his film (“I don’t like to talk about myself”) to the emotional impact of its closing sequence (“I honestly didn’t think I had a film until that scene”).

He isn’t the only filmmaker charting the devastation wrought in Syria over the last several years, of course, but Heineman’s experiential approach has earned “City of Ghosts” much acclaim since its Sundance premiere earlier this year.

He said he knew that his ground-level footage was special in and of itself, but what he didn’t know is “what the film would become. It became an immigrant story; it became a story of finding oneself in a new land; it became a story of rising nationalism in Europe; it become a story of trauma and the cumulative effects of trauma that we see so vividly in the final scene.”

With such bracing subject matter, Heineman found himself in the difficult position of maintaining professionalism while filming scenes that made him want to do nothing more than embrace his subjects in an attempt to comfort them. “I don’t just knock on their door and hang out with them for a weekend,” he said of that process. “That trust builds over weeks and weeks and months and months.”

Another challenge: how quickly things change in Raqqa. “The sad irony is that we’ve killed way more civilians bombing the city of Raqqa than ISIS has killed. So, have we learned nothing from Iraq or Afghanistan?” Heineman asked. “We sort of shoot first and ask questions second. Aziz [one of his interviewees] taught me, and these guys taught me, ‘Bombs are not gonna fix ISIS. ISIS is an idea.’ And we as journalists, we as civilians, we as governments, have to figure out a way to fight this as an idea — not with weapons.”

He also revealed what he’s working on next: a television follow-up to “Cartel Land” set to air in early 2018 and his first narrative feature. The latter is about the life of Marie Colvin, a war correspondent who was killed in Syria, which suggests that Heineman’s fictions won’t stray far from his truths.

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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