Man at His Best

This Is Why You Shouldn’t Miss The Docu Of The Year, "City Of Ghosts"

Raqqa’s citizen journalists hope the phone proves mightier than the sword.

BY editors | Jul 18, 2017 | Film & TV

It is easy to bemoan the pernicious effect of social media in the West and the increasingly vapid, materialistic instincts that it seems to breed. Then you watch Matthew Heineman’s documentary, City of Ghosts, and you remember that social media can have a very different purpose indeed. The film follows the members of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), a group of inhabitants of the Syrian city, which, in the power vacuum left by the Arab Spring, turned into the stronghold of the Islamic State. What happened to their town next is almost too terrible to fathom, were it not for the footage that RBSS began to release through social media of medieval torture implements, public executions, and bodies left in the town square with their heads impaled on railings behind them.

Through the film, Heineman, who also directed the excellent Cartel Land (2015), reveals how these ordinary men have become a de facto news agency, with representatives inside Raqqa risking everything to send information to others in relative (but only relative) safety in Turkey and Germany for them to disseminate in turn to the wider world. That is assuming that anyone will listen, of course, though as RBSS co-founder Hussam notes after the recent spate of terrorist attacks in France (and before those in the UK), “Isis is no longer just Syria’s problem.” The members of RBSS have suffered incredible personal loss, both of their own members and their relatives—one cameraman, Hamoud, has a slickly produced Isis video of the murder of his father—but their actions seem borne not out of bravery but necessity. Because if it was your hometown, what would you do? And as the group’s spokesman, Aziz, types out a message to his dead brother’s Facebook account, you realise that our social networks, both real and virtual, are worth defending at any cost.