Thursday, May 11, 2017

HotDocs '17 Film Review - City of Ghosts

A black tie affair in New York where Raqqua Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) a group of regular citizens from the Syrian city turned journalist is receiving the International Press Freedom Award dominates the opening frames of this new Matthew Heineman documentary feature. The group dedicated to documenting the activities of the Islamic State in their hometown risking life and limb to get the truth out to the world. The scene shifts back to Raqqa where the history of the city starting with the 2011 Arab Spring before the arrival of ISIS is recounted then the continuing deteriorating fate of the inhabitants after the religious movement takes hold.

A large portion of the action is filmed outside of Syria. The Islamic State determined to stop RBSS use their network of informers to lean names of the group members and associates killing all that are caught usually publically in the most inhumane manner. The actions of the Religious leaders forced the founding members to flee to Turkey and Germany communicating thorough Skype plus other social media outlets to those members that remained behind to get daily updates on the fate of the city and to be a source receiving the smuggled out reports to broadcast to the world. The reach of ISIS is so great that the exiled members are not even completely safe held up in secret safe houses in the two countries.

Director Heineman clearly developed an extraordinary level of trust with the journalist activist. They are facing the threat of assassination around each corner but allow the filmmaker complete access to their homes, hidden safehouses, families and daily activities.  Heinemen  is allowed to document the methods the reporters use that are still in country, communications with the exiled leaders and their methods to get the story out to the world.

The brutality of ISIS is plainly on display in the film with their propaganda videos often featuring young rifle clad children in military uniform is front and centre. The violent chants coming from there young mouths is disturbing to say the least. ISIS vows to track down these journalist wherever they are in the world to deliver them to the grave. Several segments shows the founding members watching the ISIS propaganda videos on their laptops. One in particular shows two brothers seeing on screen the execution of their father by the terrorist group. The deep profound effect of living under constant fear combined with guilt of being the ones that got out and are living a life with happy moments is an unimaginable balancing act for the ex-pats.  On top of this reality is an important sequence where members of the group are faced with German anti-Muslimism protestors marching demanding that all Muslims refugees should be banished from their country and sent back home.   

City of Ghosts is a study of a new template in activist journalism. Yesteryears tools of a notepad, pencil, personal interviews and open on scene documentation with press markings on clothing are gone. The new social media based practice is masked, undercover, hidden methods to capture footage and smuggle the documentation out of the country for editing and broadcast.  Satellite uplinks are replaced with scrambled phone signals and hushed skype calls. Matthew Heineman presents the story of Raqqa from both inside and outside her borders. The positive results are presented clearly alongside the most brutal and negative events. It’s an important piece of filmmaking that I can highly recommend.

**** Out of 4.

City of Ghosts | Matthew Heineman | U.S.A. |  2017 | 91 Minutes.

Tags: Raqqa, Syria, Journalism, Execution, Assassination, Turkey, Germany, Skype, Propaganda, ISIS, Refugee.

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