The documentary “City of Ghosts” makes a case for telling stories instead of taking up arms
The struggle against ISIS is as much a war for ground as it is a battle for screens and narratives. Over the years, the militant group has allocated considerable resources toward international media campaigns, using video to deliver its most potent messages. This conflict plays out nowhere more brutally than in Raqqa, the northeast Syrian city that ISIS has claimed as a stronghold. While many of the city’s inhabitants have been compelled to take up arms against the terrorist organization, others are fighting back through alternate means: iPhone cameras and YouTube videos.
At the heart of this is the activist-run campaign Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS)—which The New Yorker described in a profile as “a kind of underground journalistic-activist enterprise.” Founded in 2014, the group, composed of more than a dozen anonymous members operating both inside and outside Syria, meticulously documents the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS by filming and distributing videos of violence in Raqqa. The work of RBSS has been celebrated by the international journalism community, earning an International Press Freedom award in 2015—but it’s also made members and their families the targets of inconceivable violence and incredible emotional trauma.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]In one arresting scene, Hamoud confesses he can’t stop watching an ISIS execution video of his own father.[/quote]
Now members of RBSS—co-founders Abdulaziz (Aziz) Alhamza, Hamoud al-Mousa, and Hussam Eesa—have decided to cast aside their anonymity and tell their story.
The three men are the subjects of City of Ghosts, a powerful new documentary that depicts their struggle to reclaim Raqqa from violent militants. The film, which is director Matthew Heineman’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2015 documentary Cartel Land, which is about drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexico border, follows the activists as their efforts force them to leave Syria and flee to Europe, where they continue to receive death threats and live in fear.
In one arresting scene, Hamoud confesses he can’t stop watching an ISIS execution video of his own father. City of Ghosts offers a vivid and heartbreaking portrayal of war, exile, and refugeehood. I talked to Heineman about his new film, which will be in select theatres nationwide in mid-July.
Did you ever have concerns about compromising the safety of the members of RBSS while making this film?
We were always conscientious of their safety, given the extreme danger that they were in, even when they're outside of Syria—when they're in Turkey or when they're in Europe—as you see in the film. The way we communicated with them was through encrypted means. They obviously continue to receive threats from ISIS.
The fact of the matter is that when they decided to make the film with us, they recognized that, in doing so, their risk profile would increase. But they wanted to do this. They wanted to get their story out. They wanted to stop hiding behind the veneer of social media and online avatars and to come out of the shadows, as they say in the film, and show their faces and show that they're real people from Raqqa, and that they have families. They felt that coming out and taking part in the film was an important step in doing that. They are willing, and they were willing, to take on that risk.
The Syrian conflict is so complicated to people who aren’t aware of its history or aren't following every news alert—it began as a popular uprising against the Assad regime, but their struggle was co-opted by ISIS. It's clear that the men in the film are faithful Muslims and sensitive to the fact that some of the narratives coming out of Syria, about Syria, have been used to justify different forms of Islamophobia in Western countries where refugees are resettling. At the same time, a militant group that uses Islam to justify its violence is perpetrating what’s happening in Raqqa. How did you handle those nuances? How did you delineate those differences?
It's obvious that ISIS has, as [RBSS activists] say in the film, perverted their religion in a very destructive way. I think the portrayal of moderate Muslim men is a nice byproduct of this movie. I think most people understand that ISIS is not representative of the vast majority of Muslims.
But what's happening in Syria, or what's happened in that part of the world, is often used to justify different Islamophobic policies in the United States. There's obviously a rise in Islamophobia, in Islamophobic hate crimes. I appreciated that, in the film, the faith of the RBSS activists wasn't edited.
Yeah, of course. I think that's one of the beauties of documentary film, to show people a world that they might not otherwise get to see and to meet people that they otherwise might not get to meet. In doing so, I have an obligation to present the fabric of who these people are—not just who they are on paper or what their résumé is, but, really, their inner thoughts, their feelings, their emotions, their motivations, their spirituality. I set out to make a multidimensional portrait of this group, of these guys, and, obviously, that included their faith and their anger at the perversion of their religion that ISIS has propagated throughout the world and has used in the name of extraordinary violence and human rights violations in their hometown of Raqqa.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Propaganda is one of the evilest tools that human beings have used throughout history.[/quote]
There are a lot of groups within Syria that are doing maybe not the same exact work as RBSS, but similar to it, fighting against both ISIS and the Assad regimes. What did you find particularly compelling about Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently?
There are many groups, like the White Helmets, and there are tons of humanitarian organizations, but there's not a lot of groups doing anything like what RBSS is doing.
I was deeply moved by a couple of things. First of all—and not that this is what motivated me—it was an interesting follow-up to my last film, Cartel Land, insofar as both films are about individual citizens who have risen up to fight against evil. In the case of Cartel Land, it was with guns and with violence. In the case of City of Ghosts, it's with pens and cameras and computers and iPhones. I was fascinated, intellectually, by this information war, this propaganda war, this media war that is being waged between RBSS and ISIS. I think propaganda is one of the evilest tools that human beings have used throughout history. ISIS is using it to disseminate fear through the world, to spread their ideology, to recruit people from around the world to join their ranks. They're propagating this idealized safe haven and heaven for Muslims to come live in. And obviously, the reality on the ground is quite different. RBSS rose to dispel that, to expose the hypocrisy of that, to expose the horrors that were happening.
You have a lot of footage from Raqqa in the film, but if you went to Raqqa to get that footage, you probably wouldn't be here.
I would 100 percent not be here. The reason that RBSS rose up was because ISIS blacked out all media from coming in, all the information coming in, all the information from leaving. If it wasn't for these guys, we wouldn't know what's happening.
From your perspective as someone who’s spent time considering this information war, what’s an effective means of combatting it?
I'm not a policy expert. This film does not necessarily provide answers to solve these deeply intense, complicated problems. As Aziz says at the end of the film, bombs will not fix ISIS. And what RBSS is really fighting against is the ideology of ISIS, the ideology of extremism. This ideology lives within a whole generation of children that have been indoctrinated by it, and the whole sector of people around the world who have bought into this ideology.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]In this world of extremely polarized media, there's no more important story to tell than the story of people fighting for truth.[/quote]
How do you combat that? You start by exposing the reality of what's happening, and that's obviously what RBSS has done. They’ve proven this age-old idea that the pen is mightier than the sword. There's a reason that ISIS has come after them, there's a reason that ISIS has killed members of their group and their family members. ISIS feels threatened. The narrative that they've created has been threatened by the truth. We can help support groups like RBSS, we can help spread and disseminate information. In this world of fake news, in this world of extremely polarized media, I think there's no more important story to tell than the story of people fighting for truth.
Towards the end of the film, when the RBSS men have settled in Berlin, the film touches on the increasingly polarized immigration debate in Europe, where the fascist right is anti-refugee. There is a parallel movement here in the U.S. with an increasingly hostile political atmosphere for refugees, particularly those from Syria or other Muslim-majority countries.
This film originally began as two things: One, I knew I wanted the through-line of the film to be this exodus from Syria, as they're being forced to flee, as they're being hunted by ISIS, as they're escaping from Syria to Turkey, and from Turkey to Europe. I also knew that I wanted to explore these themes around this information war, this propaganda war.