Released: 21st July 2017
Directed By: Matthew Heineman
Reviewed By: Van Connor
With something of a dream team in Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman and documentary mainstay Alex Gibney (here a producer), this riveting documentary charts the efforts of Syrian activist organisation Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, as its members plot the media liberation of their people from ISIS in self-imposed European exile and with targets on their backs. A deeply personal tale, City of Ghosts chills and even horrifies with its depiction of the day-to-day brutality of life under the gaze of an enemy, we’re told early on, is like no other before it.
Members of the organisation – so named for their fallen home, taken as an institutional hub for IS – take Heineman and co. through the events that led to their current seclusion, and inspired each to rise up in the name of shattering the cloud of slickly-produced propaganda with which their occupiers have indoctrinated so many. Harrowing is an understatement, as the progression of the group’s appearances to relay their tales to the western media is met in equal measure with the systematic assassination of friends and loved ones both back home and in the previously-presumed safe harbour of Istanbul.
City of Ghosts asserts itself early on as being truthful in its depiction of life under ISIS as it is unflinchingly brutal. Make no mistake, it’s a difficult watch at times – with Heineman’s inclusion of senseless brutalities necessary to inform, but distressing to see as acts of reality too grim for any evening news program. Essential viewing, City of Ghosts is important documentation of its subjects’ plight – and the subjugation of an entire nation, mind – that should be respected and shared by and with as many viewers as possible. It’s compelling, and it’s truly eye-opening.
Packed into an all-too-brief ninety-two minutes, it’s difficult not to draw historical parallels here, even in the face of a burgeoning regime that scares just as much with its unprecedented indoctrination and scope as it does its increasingly merciless atrocities. A sequence featuring the mass-destruction of Raqqa’s satellite dishes, for example, evokes images of Nazi book-burnings, while ISIS’ professionally-produced propaganda videos – one of which features the single creepiest targeted threat anyone could imagine seeing issued them – oddly resemble the kind of video a certain controversial American religion would disseminate.
Shepherded to the screen by Amazon Studios, the choice of distributor is a very encouraging sign for the potential viewership of this must-watch chronicle – with City of Ghosts unmissable enough in cinemas, but certain to become a water-cooler title when it makes its way to Prime. Which you’d hope will be sooner, rather than a later we’re shown will be infinitely bleaker.