Mark Reviews Movies

City of Ghosts (2017)

CITY OF GHOSTS (2017)

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matthew Heineman

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and for some language)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 7/7/17 (limited); 7/21/17 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 20, 2017

The camera follows him as he walks down a sidewalk in Berlin with his wife. We hear running footsteps. The camera drops down—not to the ground but so that we're looking at the man's feet. At the same time, those feet take a few quick steps backwards. For a moment, we think that this could be it for the man, possibly his wife, and maybe even the cameraman. He has been living in fear that this could be the result of his work. There are people who want him dead, and they want his death to be public—to make an example of him and to show his colleagues that no one is safe. Even on a sidewalk in Europe, far from the brutal and authoritarian rule of ISIS in Syria, that terrorist group still can kill anyone it perceives as an enemy.

The situation turns out fine, since the running footsteps belong to a friend of the man, but these few seconds sum up the sense of fear that permeates City of Ghosts. It's a documentary from director Matthew Heineman that begins as a history of the citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and transforms into something that is more akin to a thriller. That might make it sound as if Heineman is exploiting the situation in Syria or the work of these men, but that's not the case. It's simply the nature of telling this story, in which, indeed, some of these journalists are killed in their home country—if they have decided to stay in order to photograph or record the vicious work and social devastation wrought by ISIS—and in Europe.

None of these people is safe, and that includes Heineman, who serves as the film's cinematographer and, hence, camera operator throughout the process of following these journalists who have escaped Syria. He's the one who drops the camera—but doesn't run—when those footfalls approach Mohamad, a reporter for RBSS. An assassin trained or inspired by ISIS would not distinguish between his target—the journalist—and anyone accompanying the man.

We know this, because Hamoud, a cameraman for RBSS who has fled Syria, has video of his father being executed in Raqqa, simply because his son is part of the journalism organization. He regularly watches that video. He says that it gives him strength.

The two groups—RBSS and ISIS—are engaged in a media war, in addition to an ideological one. ISIS, which the members of RBSS constantly refer to as "Daesh" (an accurate acronym that the terrorist group despises, because of its similarity to Arabic words with negative connotations), makes recruiting videos. When they first began gaining ground, after infiltrating and taking advantage of legitimate protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring of 2010-2012, the videos were crude.

They have become more sophisticated, with special effects and slow-motion explosions and executions performed with multiple-camera setups. Some of them clearly are meant to appeal to a younger audience, with firefights and killings shot from a first-person point-of-view that mirrors something out of a video game. The videos are for a younger audience outside of Syria. Within the country, ISIS has established schools, where young children are taught execution techniques with a knife and a teddy bear, and holds marches in the streets, where kids chant the group's various mantras.

For its part, RBSS runs counter-propaganda through its website and various social media platforms. We know what's happening in Syria because of the group's two arms: an internal one and an external one. The journalists who remain in Raqqa go by pseudonyms and codenames to protect their identities. Their faces are covered, and their voices are distorted. ISIS calls Syria a "paradise." The reporters with RBSS capture video of children waiting in long lines for food, of buildings destroyed by bombings, and of public executions. They spray-paint graffiti and put up flyers denouncing the terrorist group, and they even distributed a magazine that looks like the one ISIS publishes, only to have everything within the magazine go against the propaganda.

Mohamad, Hamoud, and a handful of others release these videos and photographs online with articles that include first-hand accounts of what is happening in Raqqa and in the country. There are constant, specific threats against them. While in Turkey, ISIS sends one of the journalists a message with a photo of the entryway to the building where they are living and working. They leave Turkey for an undisclosed location in Germany, just before their mentor is assassinated in broad daylight in the street.

Heineman spares us little of the horror. There are executions, scenes of children being brainwashed into killers, and the aftermath of bombings—performed by Assad, he says, to stop ISIS but killing and wounding thousands of civilians in the process. Such actions won't work, a spokesman RBSS argues, because ISIS is founded on an idea. Recent history has shown that the end of one group with such an ideology only makes room for another, worse group to rise in its place.

There's no easy answer to this problem, although it's clear that the bombings do not help. It's also clear that the rise of right-wing nationalism—a political viewpoint that easily could be placed on ISIS itself, given its goal of state driven by its twisted perspective on Islam—does not help, either.

One of the more disheartening scenes of City of Ghosts has members of RBSS participating in a counter-protest to an anti-immigration protest in Germany. They have fled Syria, because ISIS wants to kill them, only to go to Turkey, where the group easily could reach them. Now, certain people in Europe, having essentially ignored what was happening in Syria until ISIS started attacking European cities, are saying that the people fighting against ISIS are somehow the cause of their problems. "Deport them," they chant—a death sentence for these people. History repeats itself. An ideology may have new faces behind it and take on a new name, but it remains the same. That's as true in Europe as it is in Syria.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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