Movie Review: ‘City of Ghosts’ proves that even the weightiest of subjects can perform agile feats
Director: Matthew Heineman
Stars: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Hamoud, Hassan
Synopsis: A documentary that follows the efforts of “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a handful of anonymous activists who banded together after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014.
This astonishing new documentary from the team behind 2015’s Cartel Land owes much to that earlier film. Though its myriad cast and infernal setting stand as bold silhouettes atop the ramparts, it’s the film’s cinematic scope that peers out, conspicuous in its self-awareness. Cartel Land leaped into a topic oft-explored by feature-length – to say nothing of Breaking Bad – incursions into the US-Mexico drug war (Sicario, Narco Cultura). City of Ghosts has no such touchstone. Raqqa’s rubble-strewn streets may recall prime-time news reportage, but its thriller narrative expunges all doubt this story belongs anywhere but in the theatre.
This deeply personal account follows anonymous activist group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), from its reactionary inception as ISIL Wahhabism takes hold in the city, to eventual flight to western Europe. There is no three act structure here; no big pay-off nor grand resolution. Indeed, City of Ghosts’ parting gift is quite literally delivered in the maternity ward, the most silver of linings in a sunless sky. Bookended by an award ceremony at which RBSS are being honored, one journalist remarks, “So serious, my friend.” Outwardly concealed by the glamour of the occasion, the broiling discomfort is evident. Acknowledged these men ought to be, but through the prism of western opulence, at once jarring and antithetic, the lack of empathy is accentuated.
There is no sanitized footage here. As we alternate between the recent past and present, we do also the dolly-less photography of Heineman and primitive mobile phone mp4s of Raqqa’s horrors. Seamless intercutting only adds to the immersion, all-but removing entirely the safe detachment in which we might find refuge with our activists. We are invited to public executions without the cautionary warnings we might expect and, in one shocking sequence, witness a son recounting his father’s murder on a laptop, our eyes darting between LCD display and viewer as we struggle to reconcile the world in which these young men have grown, with our own. Therein lies the masterstroke of this documentary: for all its depictions of a world with which we may think we’ve an objective, if tenuous grasp, City of Ghosts injects humanity. In spades. Punctuated by an urgent score and brief moments of communal mirth, the sterile, Syrian shaped bubble with which we’re familiar is burst. Like Cartel Land and Escape Fire before it, the application of “characters” in whose shoes we can trudge for ninety minutes adds colour to a black-and-white album.
With Alex Gibney (Zero Days, Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief) on board as executive producer I sincerely hope City of Ghosts reaches its deserved audience. A limited theatrical release may mean a reliance on word-of-mouth advertising to find a home, with Amazon having secured worldwide rights for its distribution, including its Prime Video platform. And find it you must, for City of Ghosts is proof that simply pointing a camera in the right direction makes for the most engaging drama.