MIFF Review: City of Ghosts

Harrowing, vital and heartbreaking, Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts is by far, the most important documentary of the year. A clarion call to the importance of journalism, the bravery of ordinary people and a jolt to the heart for all who need an education in the refugee crisis. Essential viewing.

The Syrian crisis has ne’er been so succinctly, and terrifyingly, realised on screen as it is here in Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman’s new film. Framed around the once picturesque city of Raqqa, on the banks of the Euphrates, City of Ghost chronicles the journey of a peoples who rise up against the Assad regime to liberate themselves only to be overtaken by ISIS as the place becomes the extremist organisation’s stronghold.

As the terrorist organisation begin to impose their extremist ideals on the city, a brave insurgency of locals begin document and publish horrific daily events on social media to counter the propaganda coming out of the city. The group, known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) on facebook, risk their lives daily to bring the atrocities to the world. Founded by a group of friends: Aziz Alhamza, Hamoud, Hassan, Hussam and chaperoned by celebrated journalist Naji Jerf, these young men become some of the bravest citizen journalists of our time.

As ISIS restricts communications, cut off outside access and monitor all transmissions from mobile phones in the province, the threat of death is all too real.

And death has come for far too many. Unflinching in its savagery, the public executions, the severing of hands, the brainwashing of children, the beheadings, the beatings, the media propaganda machine is all shown here. Under the guise of some kind of promised nirvana, ISIS facilitates its death machine with a Hollywood vigour that is breathtakingly vulgar.

A particularly grotesque propaganda video shows a toddler beheading a teddy bear with a hunting knife whilst cheering Allah Akbar.

As the RBSS begins to get traction on global news networks, ISIS begins to hunt down these men and, as the city becomes far too unsafe for them to remain, they flee to Europe. But, as they go into hiding, they encounter another form of persecution – racism.

There are so many elements to this documentary that require viewing by anyone with a passing interest in the refugee debate, anyone who is unclear of what’s happening in Syria (and what is also unfolding in Yemen) and how sheltered we are. You need to see the brutality on the ground. You need to see the hostility from our nations. You need to appreciate that this is no ordinary war. And you need to be reminded that, in the end of all things, these are people, too.

It also reaffirms the necessity for a free journalism. An industry under threat daily by the interests of big money and ideology, journalism as is much on the line as human lives and City of Ghosts proves without doubt that none of what we know would be without it.

I cannot urge you strongly enough to see this. It will keep you up well after seeing it and will broaden your understanding of the horrors of the Syrian crisis and the roll out of ISIS led global terrorism. It will also remind you, that within the most modest of people lie the bravest souls of us all.