City of Ghosts (2017)

A film I would urge everyone to see yet, due to the graphic nature of some of its footage, I would find it very difficult to recommend. As heartbreaking as it is courageous and powerful, City of Ghosts is a story of incredible human bravery in the face of intolerable human cruelty.

And it shook me to my core.

Matthew (Cartel Land) Heineman’s documentary follows the Syrian citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), both inside and out of their beloved homeland as they strive to bring the truth of their besieged city to the world. Raqqa, an isolated city in the north of Syria, became the centre of operations and stronghold of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. The citizenry held against their will, brutally subjugated, tortured and executed; their children recruited and brainwashed into committing acts of atrocity; the city became a living hell where you complied or died and, if you were lucky enough, you were killed before seeing your family brutalised and worse. Risking their lives to expose the truth, RBSS secretly filmed what was happening in their city and relayed their footage to the West. Some escaped and some remained, all faced death no matter what their location in the world.

The film carries images that pierce the eyes and burn themselves into the viewer’s conscience: mutilations, executions, crucifixions; fear and suffering; paranoia and joy; sadness and, above all, bravery. That this small band of heroes exists is testament to their courage and the enduring spirit of mankind; the losses they endure and bear mean that, although you may be tempted, it is imperative that you do not look away; these men, these brave men, bring you the truth and you’d better not turn your head for, in doing so, you diminish, not only, their courage but your duty as a world citizen to listen to the story they tell.

This band, always with one eye to their backs as the caliphate calls for their heads (literally), dispossessed and desperate face the arrogance, greed and hatred of not just the cruel regime at home but also, in one bitter sequence, from the rise of the far-right in their temporary home of Germany. There are allegories, both historical and contemporary, in this sequence which I don’t think I need to point out suffice to say, City of Ghosts points its finger not only at Syria but also the West.

One image haunts me more than any other: it’s not the heads hanging from railings; the glossy, Hollywood-style execution of one of the group’s father or the child shouting “God is great” whilst he decapitates a teddy; it is of Aziz, the RBSS spokesman, quietly smoking a cigarette down to the filter, his body shaking uncontrollably (from fear? elation? the weight of history on his shoulders?) until, exhausted, he falls asleep, his iPhone slipping slowly from his fingers.

A remarkable, visceral chronicle of horrors and bravery. City of Ghosts feels like an all-timer, a documentary that will be watched long after the resolution of Syria’s ultimate fate and should be seen any time the world allows such inhuman cruelty to exist (which we do, unfortunately far too often).

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