Maria Flood visits Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts won the Guth Gafa ‘Human Rights’ prize for its depiction of the ISIS occupation of the Syrian city of Raqqa. The film recounts the story of the group of citizen journalists and activists called ‘Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered’ (RBSS), who launched a campaign against the fundamentalist group. The film opens with a black screen and a voiceover that states, ‘some situations are atrocious, but others are more atrocious’. Few would disagree that the war in Syria is of the most atrocious kind, from its beginnings in popular revolt against the Assad regime to the current state of murderous disarray, with rebel groups, the regime, ISIS, and an international proxy war battling for control in a conflict that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The film follows the lives and work of RBSS activists Aziz, Mohamed, Hamoud, and other citizen journalists in Raqqa as they strive to constantly communicate ISIS atrocities taking place in the city to the outside world. Aziz, Mohamed, Hamoud, and others have had no media training, and they have mostly been moved out of Syria for their own safety, but they tweet constantly, updating their website and pages with live information fed to them by different people still living in Raqqa. These individuals take enormous personal risks to communicate with the outside world, and the members of RBSS have all lost friends and family members to ISIS terror. When ISIS could not find Hamoud, they targeted his father instead and we see Hamoud watching an ISIS video that depicts in dramatic, stylized form his own father’s execution: They make all of their content free, so that no one news outlet has exclusive access. In this way, they hope to reach as wide an audience as possible. The BBC, CNN, ABC, and others use RBSS as their principal source of news from Raqqa, because it is impossible to get journalists into the city: ISIS would kill them immediately.

The opening sequences of the film contrast life in Raqqa (known as the ISIS ‘capital’) before the occupation and after: shots of people dancing, swimming, and shopping cede to car and tanks rolling into town, with black flags flying as young men, some of them children, grinning manically at the camera as they carry guns. Some particularly disturbing scenes are drawn from ISIS propaganda, and are difficult to watch: hands being chopped off, mass executions in Raqqa’s ‘Paradise Square’, beheaded bodies lying on pavements, with the heads impaled on nearby railings. There is no doubt about the evil present in the actions of this group that co-founder Aziz Alhamza says is ‘beyond Taliban or Al’Quaeda’.

In an era where citizens in Europe and America seem to have less and less confidence in the so-called mainstream media, City of Ghosts is a powerful reminder of the important role that a free press can play in working against atrocity and injustice. ISIS actively recruit individuals who are proficient in social media, and Aziz told me after the screening that ISIS has had decreasing numbers of recruits since RBSS launched their media campaign: down from over 1000 in 2014 to 100 last year. More than this, a Google search of ‘Raqqa’ in 2014 would have produced a slew of articles from the mouth of the ISIS propaganda machine; now, RBBS newsfeeds dominate the top ten searches.

Aziz, the unofficial spokesperson of the group because ‘his English is not so bad’, reiterates at several times throughout the film that ‘a camera is more powerful than a weapon… we are sure that our words are more powerful than their weapons’. RBSS continue the war of information against the terrorist group, and they insist that rather than trying to defeat ISIS militarily, their ideology must be vanquished. Like the many headed Hydra, Aziz argues that ISIS will continue to spring up in new formations until what they appear to offer recruits (sex, money, power, prosperity) is no longer attractive — because people have other options, and hope.

The bravery of the RBSS group is astonishing, considering that Aziz acknowledges that ‘the more they [ISIS] are challenged, the more barbaric they become’. Many RBSS members have been killed by ISIS, including Ibrahim Abd al Qader and Fares Hamadi in Raqqa, and journalist Naji Jerf in Turkey. The courage of the RBSS members has all the more impact, because their lives before the revolution and their hopes for the future are so ordinary: born into middle-class families, they too want families, children, a home, and jobs.

But these ordinary individuals have faced extraordinary circumstances. Of the citizen journalists who risk their lives to send information to the RBSS members abroad, Aziz says ‘these are the people history should be written about’ — but this comment certainly applies to all of the members of their collective. About halfway through the film, the black screen returns, and it is momentarily illuminated by a solitary candle: a light in the darkness, and an image reminiscent of the Amnesty International icon. Next, a computer screen is turned on, flashing up with the RBSS homepage — two solitary symbols of light and of hope in an uncertain future.


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.

City of Ghosts will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime in the coming months.


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