Director Matthew Heineman gives a face to the group ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’ in his new film, City of Ghosts. This group of citizen journalists risks their lives to fight against ISIS propaganda and ideology in Raqqa, Syria. To combat ISIS’ false promise of prosperity, security, and power to those who are starving, dying, and powerless, ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,’ or RBSS, creates magazines, posters, and graffiti in Raqqa and broadcasts on social media to expose the murderous violence and false ideology of ISIS.
The film opens on Abdalaziz Alhamza, a thin, drawn man known as “Aziz,” co-founder of RBSS, alone, smoking on a train. In a calm but chilling voice, he says “In Raqqa, Death is death… we have overcome fear.”
Soon the screen is filled with images and sounds of violence in the streets of Raqqa—rubble and gunshots, civilians running crouched, dead bodies lying on the ground, their heads cut off. In the midst of this, we meet Hamoud al-Mousa, a quiet man who has a passion for filming. He says that his mother tried to dissuade him from being involved with RBSS and from filming ISIS, but, he admits, “Danger tastes sweet.”
Within a short time, ISIS begins targeting RBSS members and their families. Hamoud, Aziz, and other key members of RBSS must leave Raqqa. Escaping Syria, RBSS remains within ISIS’ reach. Naji Jerf, senior member of RBBS, mentor and father-figure to its young staff, is assassinated in Turkey. Other RBSS members still in Turkey flee to Germany, where they are shocked to find that they are not welcome. Germans in Berlin march in the streets protesting the influx of refugees: “Deport them! Deport them!”
In the midst of chaos, death, and trauma, however, the members of RBSS still find some joy and consolation. Upon arrival in Berlin, the Syrian natives gleefully throw snowballs at each other for the first time. Hamoud smiles down on his newborn son in the hospital with fatherly love. In these moments of joy, we still see the deep, overwhelming pain they suffer. They know it is but a brief moment of normalcy in the havoc of their lives. Looking down on his newborn son, Hamoud says, “I hope he will have a better life than we have… We woke up in a world of war.”
The film ends with a striking scene. Aziz shakes uncontrollably as he looks at photos of family and friends, now dead or still in living in Raqqa. He is overcome with grief and horror and guilt—they are dead and he lives—they remain in Raqqa, and he has escaped.
This is not a film for the faint-hearted but is a must-see. The powerful film will immerse you in the terrifying reality of life under ISIS rule, but ultimately it will inspire hope that the pen will triumph over the sword, and that courageous individuals, perhaps needing international support, can triumph over a murderous nationalistic ideology. “Either we will win,” said Aziz, “or they will kill us all.”
Matthew Heineman, Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning director of Cartel Land (2015), said that at its core, City of Ghosts is “an homage to journalism… an homage to fighting for the truth and seeking out the truth… We need groups like this to help us see the dark corners of the world.”
Ultimately, RBSS is hopeful in their mission. “We are sure,” said Aziz, “that our words are stronger than their weapons and their arms.”
Original CBC review by Christina Craig.
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