What might be most horrific about the horrors exposed in Matthew Heineman’s overwhelming City of Ghosts is their familiarity. The film documents the efforts of citizen journalists to alert the world to ISIS’s ravaging of Raqqa, their Syrian hometown, which Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his extremist followers seized four years ago. With cell phones, video cameras and spotty Wi-Fi, the courageous young men of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently revealed the bloody truth of ISIS’s perversion of Islam. Here are public executions: bodies chucked from buildings, kneeling hostages shot on camera, men and women publicly flayed, heads spiked on a fence while the bodies rot below. It’s terrible to behold but of course is no surprise. It’s what any reasonably informed American knows is going on but likely chooses not to think about. City of Ghosts and Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently demand that you contemplate it — that you find within yourself the capacity for outrage.
Unsurprising or not, that footage has outraged ISIS, which has endeavored to cut Raqqa off from the rest of the world and to exterminate the citizen journalists. When that fails, the bastards will kill the truth tellers’ families. Much of the original RBSS crew long ago fled Raqqa and Syria for Europe, where, from safe houses, they post to the internet reports from courageous citizens back home. “They executed our brother and father so that we’d stop,” says a young man named Hassan, “but we’re going to continue.” Late in the film, RBSS members watch an ISIS propaganda video aimed directly at them: “And don’t think that your presence in Europe will protect you,” a narrator snarls. “A sharp knife or a bullet in the head will be your fate.” The men study the corpses on their screen. One says, with sickening matter-of-factness, “That’s Naji, and on the right is Ibrahim.”
ISIS has vowed to kill these men for having revealed, among other things, ISIS’s murders. Throughout the film, we glimpse ISIS’s own videos, painstakingly slick depictions of the same kind of brutality that RBSS leaks. ISIS’s media team convincingly apes the techniques of Hollywood action flicks and first-person-shooter video games, selling something worse than terror as they cut back and forth, using film-school angles, between an executioner and his helpless victim. They’re promising that enacting holy vengeance is a thrill, that killing is a cinematic blast, that young men without prospects could always make their mark on this world with headshots. That’s another horrible familiarity: Young men here are sold the same fatal lie.
Heineman’s own footage is strong, too. He shows us his expat heroes making new lives, cheered and somewhat discomfited by Berlin’s libertine openness. They field calls from Raqqans, type up firsthand news reports, wince at photographs of air strikes. They wait to hear who has died. They’re rewarded, at times, by the West: In Manhattan, spokesman Abdalaziz Alhamza is feted by David Remnick and the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Berlin, though, several RBSS survivors behold an anti-immigrant protest, where the fearful shout, “Deport them!” Again, Heineman’s film urges us not to take any horrors for granted. It is invaluable, as both moral instruction and documented history.