The once happy and mundane city of Raqqa, Syria, located along the Euphrates, was one of the first urban areas to join the Civil War for independence against the reign of the Assad regime. In the power vacuum that resulted upon their successful revolt, ISIS was allowed to come in and claim Raqqa as the capital of the Islamic State, with the militant organization making sure that the only materials to get out of the city in terms of media were carefully constructed propaganda. City of Ghosts tells the story of citizen journalists – many of them young men, many working in exile or undercover – who have struggled greatly to bring the unbiased, horrific truth about living under ISIS control to the world via their website RBSS – Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.
Oscar nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) expertly shows how the intrepid and understandably stressed out reporters and founders behind RBSS can use many of the same propaganda techniques as ISIS, but in a bid to save lives rather than destroying them. City of Ghosts boasts a great deal of graphic footage depicting life in Raqqa, but there’s no way to make this film without such gruesome moments. This is what the reporters have risked their lives (and the lives of close family members) to document and show to the world. To shy away would be a slap in the face to Heineman’s brave subjects.
It’s a sad, intense, and righteous work with erudite subjects who aren’t afraid of appearing candid or vulnerable. The tension mounts and builds to a harrowing moment of someone nearly breaking down from the stress of their situation unlike anything I have seen before. City of Ghosts is a film that will rightfully haunt anyone who sees it.
Is City of Ghosts essential festival viewing?
This is a film that will be remembered for years to come, and it’s one of the best documentaries about the Syrian conflict and its human toll to date. It also establishes the still relatively young Heineman as one of our best working documentarians.
City of Ghosts screening times
- Friday, April 28, 2017 – 6:30 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (part of the Scotiabank Big Ideas series)
- Saturday, April 29, 2017 – 5:00 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre (part of the Food & Film series)
- Saturday, May 6. 2017 – 9:30 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
- Sunday, May 7, 2017 – 12:45 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema