Shame and alarm are the primary tools of the citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). Started in the wake of ISIS seizing the Syrian city, young men armed with phone cameras shared unspeakable brutality with the rest of the world. ISIS labeled them as enemies, so they went into seclusion. Directed by Matthew Heineman, the documentary City of Ghosts follows these men from their early efforts, onward to exile and recognition as the world’s most vital journalists. Unlike his earlier effort Cartel Land, Heineman does not plunge us into the milieu of RBSS. His ambition is deeper than that: he shows us how an ignored, isolated city eventually became a blueprint for how ISIS plans the West’s annihilation.
The battle for Raqqa started in 2011, when protests against the Assad regime took over the city. The subsequent power vacuum created an opportunity for ISIS, then a fringe group, to take its place. Heineman goes through this background carefully, using phone camera footage to the show the extent of the outrage, destruction, and death. All the RBSS members are middle-class and mild-mannered. Their spokesperson, Aziz, was a former biology student, while his top reporter was a schoolteacher. RBSS worked in secret, undermining every ISIS effort to show that the city thrives under their rule. One of the more intriguing aspects of City of Ghosts is how ISIS and RBSS created concurrent, wholly different filmed versions of the same events. One reporter bitterly observes ISIS wised up to cinema’s power as a propaganda tool, and began using Hollywood techniques in the recruitment videos. Heineman includes some of this footage, and is downright frightening.
City of Ghosts is split into two discrete halves. The first follows the journalists in Raqqa, as they persevere through one hardship and threat after another. In the film’s most harrowing scene, one RBSS member watches video of his father and brother’s execution. The second half follows RBSS as they leave Raqqa for Germany and Turkey. They receive some international attention, so the film shifts from a cinema verite, feet on the ground style towards a broader context. When RBSS started, few in the West had heard of Raqqa. Now the group has the displeasure of saying “I told you so,” in the grimmest possible terms. In the past few years, RBSS has to worry about more than just being killed by ISIS. Nationalist groups are now a force in Germany, shouting bile at anyone a different skin color, so it’s astonishing Aziz and the others do not give into bitter misanthropy. Heineman does not pull any punches. When he cuts away from an execution or an angry skinhead, the damage is already done and the implication is clear.
One unanswered question about City of Ghosts is the psychological trauma that RBSS members must face. Heineman only follows a handful of members, and does not probe into what drives them beyond a yearning for justice (all of them smoke, probably out of nervous habit). A possible implication is that, in the face of ISIS and constant death threats, a surface level analysis is all we can get: they sacrificed a normal life in order to speak truth to power, so personalities and petty arguments are luxuries to them. Still, the film ends with a glimmer of what RBSS members undergo. After being singled out by ISIS – this time by name – Aziz sits at his flat and barely keeps it together. He puts on a brave front, speaking English for countless interviews, yet he remains a young man with an entire people on his shoulders. It’s too much to bear, and City of Ghosts hints there are going to be more like him before this is all over – if that ever happens.