The title "City of Ghosts," Matthew Heineman's powerful and unnerving new documentary, refers initially to the Syrian metropolis of Raqqa, the city whose soul was close to destroyed when the Islamic State seized it and declared it the capital of their caliphate.
But after you've seen this intimate film, directed, produced and filmed by Heineman, the title may take on an extra meaning. For it almost seems as if the heroic individuals the film portrays have become close to ghosts themselves because of the terrible price they continue to pay for exposing Islamic State's horrors to the world.
Though it is now increasingly in the news because U.S.-supported troops have encircled the city and started a push to take it back, there was a time when what was happening in Raqqa was not known in the wider world. Which is where Aziz, Hamoud, Husam and Mohammad played their part.
Living ordinary lives in Raqqah when Islamic State took over the town in July 2014, they were incensed both at the terror group's depredations and the way no one in the outside world seem to know or care about the situation.
So these men and other citizen-journalists founded Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, often abbreviated as RBSS, a news organization dedicated to exposing the awful details of that situation to the light of day.
Part of what makes "City of Ghosts" compelling is a chance to view disturbing footage of Islamic State atrocities, clandestinely shot with cellphones and so revealing and incendiary the videoers faced death if captured.
These moments include terrorists publicly executing citizens in the city’s main square, brief shots of severed heads impaled on fence posts, even bizarre footage of the Islamic State youth movement, known as the Caliphate Cubs. “We punctured a hole in the darkness,” an RBSS member says, and he is exactly right.
That footage, posted on the RBSS website, made these men international heroes, and “City of Ghosts” begins with them getting a major prize, the International Freedom of the Press Award, at the Committee to Protect Journalists’ swank New York banquet.
The men are shown going through the usual banquet press photo routine, and when smiles are not forthcoming, one of the photographers says teasingly, “So serious, my friend.”
It’s the business of the rest of “City of Ghosts” to in effect explain that moment, to tell these men’s personal stories and explore exactly what they’ve been through, to reveal the experiences that make it impossible for them to smile on cue.
Aziz, for instance, previously an apolitical college student and unapologetic party animal, is now RBSS’ spokesperson. Former high school teacher Mohammad is now a reporter, and film lover Hamoud is a cameraman.
Islamic State, as might be imagined, is well aware of what these men are doing, and “City of Ghosts” explores the price, both psychological and physical, of being in the cross hairs of what one of the group calls “the most dangerous organization in the world.”
For one thing, serious terrorist assassination threats have caused RISS’ members to flee both to neighboring Turkey and even further afield to Germany. “The knife,” says Hamoud, “is up against our necks.”
Even if these men avoid death, “City of Ghosts” details how their colleagues and relatives back in Raqqa are targeted, arrested and often killed by Islamic State.
What this kind of pressure and tragedy does to the RBSS members is wrenching to watch, but director Heineman is up to the task.
Best known for the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land,” a look at the drug wars in Mexico, Heineman specializes in getting deeply inside situations.
Here Heineman serves as his own cameraman, and the intimacy he developed with the subjects enabled him to capture the wrenching nature of the situation, to be there when they admit “a state of fear has started to spread among us.”
“City of Ghosts” demonstrates, in Hamoud’s phrase, that “the camera is more powerful than a weapon,” but it also shows the horrible price it extracts from those who wield it.
When Aziz says, “either we will win or they will kill all of us,” it doesn’t sound like hyperbole but like the simple, literal truth.
“City of Ghosts”
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles