City of Ghosts.

City of Ghosts, now available on amazon Prime, follows the citizen-journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which began disseminating information online about the atrocities committed by the Daesh, also known as ISIS and ISIL, during their three-plus year occupation of the once-prosperous Syrian city. RBSS won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2015, even as some of its leaders were being hunted down and executed by Daesh supporters in Syria and in Turkey. The group continues to operate, with its leadership in exile, relying on anonymous contributors still in the city, which was just liberated from Daesh control by Kurdish-led anti-government forces three weeks ago.

(The group that occupied Raqqa goes by many names, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but the RBSS members interviewed in this documentary appear to favor the term Daesh, which ISIL leaders themselves dislike. As that is what the RBSS members use, I’ll follow that convention here.)

Raqqa was the sixth-largest city in Syria, with a population of 220,000 in the 2004 census (per Wikipedia), and hosted many anti-government protests during the Syrian portion of the Arab Spring, with the toppling of a statue of the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad coming when a mixed coalition of opposing forces took the city from the Syrian army. In less than a year, however, Daesh forces took control of Raqqa, setting up a sharia court and executing opponents in the middle of the day in the town square. The journalists and activists who formed RBSS began almost immediately to document the conditions in the town under the Daesh, including the executions and the extreme privation, by posting videos, photos, and written content to social media and Youtube. With no foreign journalists on the ground in the city, RBSS quickly gained credibility as one of the few reliable (non-Daesh) information sources there, and a film directed by RBSS co-founder Naji Jerf helped them win the aforementioned award from CPJ. RBSS were quickly targeted by the occupying forces, who threatened to kill every member they could find – and the family members of those they couldn’t. They executed several members still in Raqqa, and assassinated several others outside of the country, including Jerf, killed in broad daylight in Turkey in 2015.

City of Ghosts follows the remaining leaders of RBSS, walking back to the group’s origins and carrying the story forward about two years, through the losses of several group leaders, the flights of many others into exile, and their continuing work to tell the world of the conditions in Raqqa – and to try to contradict the Daesh’s recruiting videos, which, shocking as it is, don’t exactly depict real life as a member of the jihadist group. Director Matthew Heineman manages to give the viewer the information s/he needs on the actual progress of the civil war and the occupation of Raqqa as foundation, while still centering the documentary itself on the individuals, all men, who are risking their lives and even those of family members to fight the Daesh with information. Each has his own story, whether it’s specific reasons for joining the effort or the very personal cost paid for his involvement. Watching them flee to exile in Germany, only to be confronted by neo-Nazis and anti-immigrant protesters, only serves to underscore how incredibly lonely this existence must be.

The film did leave me with one question, although it may have been too dangerous to answer. Someone has to be funding the group; we never see these courageous men discussing money, but they have laptops, smart phones, video cameras, and obviously are eating and buying the essentials. The effort may have started organically, but somewhere there must be a source of funds that allows them to continue to live, and thus to work on informing the world that Raqqa is burning. Of course, identifying any funding sources could have put them in jeopardy, and thus jeopardizing the group’s work. At the time of the film’s release, Raqqa was still under Daesh control, and their efforts remained as important as ever.

Documentaries about the ongoing catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war are everywhere now; The White Helmets won the Oscar for short-subject documentary last year, and Last Men in Aleppo is a full-length feature on the same topic (and in my queue to watch). Sebastian Junger’s Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS is supposed to take a more direct look at the state of the war and the failed state of Syria. HBO’s Cries from Syria focuses on the human cost and humanitarian crisis. As obsessed as much of our polity here is with the Daesh and the occasional terrorist attack abroad by adherents, there’s still so little happening to stop the crisis; even if the Daesh, who control a fraction of the territory they did at their peak, are totally removed from power, there will still be a civil war in Syria, with Kurds at odds with the central government, and numerous other rebel groups vying for control of the country. By putting a few young heroes at the heart of its story, City of Ghosts provides a new lens on the disaster while testifying to the relentless human desire to be free.

Comments

  1. Formatting error? I’m not sure you intended half the post to be a giant link.

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