City of Ghosts (2017)


ISIS: The sunset of decency.

(2017) Documentary (IFC) Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, Hassan, Hussam, Naji Jerf, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Courage comes in all sorts of forms. There are those who go out and put their lives in harm’s way, whether they be soldiers or police officers or firemen; we think of these brave men and women first most of the time when we think of courage. There are other ways of putting one’s life on the line  however; there are those who attempt to tell the world the truth despite danger to life and limb.

Raqqa is a Syrian city on the Euphrates river. Once upon a time it was a beautiful city, idyllic in many ways. Life there was good; it was a great place to raise a family. However during the Arab spring the citizens of Raqqa were unhappy with the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and demonstrated against the strongman. He responded by putting the city under fire and the citizens fought back.

It was the perfect storm for ISIS to move in and capture the city. At first, they were welcomed as liberators. After all, they had to be better than what was previously in power, right? As it turned out, things were far from right. ISIS instituted a despotic rule in which citizens were routinely beheaded, thrown from buildings, crucified, shot or otherwise executed for violations of Sharia law, real or perceived. Those in opposition to the rule of ISIS were also given the same treatment.

Various citizens of Raqqa began to fight back in a different way. Knowing that guns and violence would not dislodge the battle-hardened ISIS warriors, they chose to use truth and facts as their weapons. Taking video on cell phones, they uploaded images that contradicted the official ISIS lie that Raqqa had become an Eden with happy citizens and smiling children. It had become a place where starvation was common, even basic medical services non-existent and where citizens live in constant fear of their lives. Their children are being indoctrinated and their wives sexually assaulted.

Three men – Aziz, a former hard-partying college student; Mohamad, a math teacher moved to action when one of his young students was arrested, and Hussam, a former lawyer – became along with camera operator Hamoud the backbone of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. With Raqqa being virtually cut off from the rest of the world, cell phone video is being smuggled out by these men who have been forced to leave their home city and take refuge in places like Turkey and Germany.

Some of the images here are graphic; people are beheaded, people are shot in the back of the head, people are thrown off of buildings. The aftermath of these grisly demises are also shown. It is most definitely not a film for those sensitive to such things who should probably not see this unless they feel strongly that they can handle those images.

There is also the matter of the soundtrack which at times is distracting from the images that are being shown. It is not good when you notice the score; something subtle should have been used because these images deserve to exercise their full power on the viewer. They don’t need any musical assistance.

What is compelling is the eyes of those living in Raqqa; the pain is clear and obvious. In the men struggling to save their city it is just as obvious; one of the movie’s most memorable moments is of Aziz quietly smoking. As he smokes, he begins to shake violently as if all the horror and stress is catching up with him. It catches up with all of us, too. These are men who have given up everything and most of them have had family members and friends executed in retaliation for their efforts. Nobody can question their commitment or their courage.

This is a powerful movie that is moving and inspiring but also infuriating. Such inhumanity and casual evil makes you want to lash out and somebody, anybody. The caution here is to not to think that all Muslims are ISIS and there are certainly those in our country who will think so. The heroes in this movie are also Muslim and they fight for their homes and their family with decency and passion. It is ironic that in Germany where some of those whose lives are in imminent danger (some of their number have been assassinated outside of Syria) are the targets of German anti-immigration militants who want them sent back to wherever they came from. This movie is a means of seeing exactly where they came from and why they can’t return. We should be standing alongside these men and supporting them, not calling for them to be sent home. In this case, it is the refugees who are heroes and the anti-immigrant protesters who are the cowards and isn’t that ironic indeed.

This is an essential documentary in 2017 and is likely to get another Oscar nomination for Heineman which if it happens will be richly deserved. It couldn’t have been easy to get these men, who are under threat of death by people who are serious about killing them, to open up on camera but he did. Even as Heineman shows us peaceful images of the timeless Euphrates, he reminds us that there are things worth fighting for – one’s home is worth defending no matter what the odds.

Those wanting to see the video firsthand as well as what’s going on currently in Raqqa can check out their website here.

REASONS TO GO: The courage on display here is overwhelming. There are some intensely powerful moments. The Euphrates is a beautiful and ancient river. You get a real sense of the pressure these men are under.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is occasionally intrusive. Some of the images are extremely unsuitable for the impressionable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a whole lot of violence and some disturbing images of death and the dead.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heineman’s last film, Cartel Land played the Florida Film Festival in 2015 and would go on to be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar as well as winning three Emmy awards.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Men in Aleppo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Snatched

Pick of the Litter – July 2017


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

(EuropaCorp/STX) Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke. Based on the landmark graphic novel and brought to life by French director Luc Besson, this movie follows the exploits of Valerian and his partner in crime Laureline who are tasked with the assignment of protecting Alpha, an amazing city where thousands of sentient beings gather to share technologies, cultures and knowledge with one another. It is truly a city of peace but it has become threatened by an unknown force and it is up to the two agents to not only discover who the threat is coming from but head it off before the galaxy is plunged into an all-encompassing war. July 21

INDEPENDENT PICKS

City of Ghosts

(IFC/Amazon) Matthew Heineman. From the director of Cartel Land comes this extraordinary documentary which chronicles the attempts of citizen journalists in the occupied city of Raqqa who attempt to call attention of the world to the horrors being inflicted upon them by ISIS. Even when they leave their home, these courageous chroniclers are not safe. It’s a truly sobering look at the human toll of religious fanaticism. July 7

Bronx Gothic

(Grasshopper) Okwui Okpokwasili. This is a documentary account of performance artist Okpokwasili and her preparation and execution of the riveting and controversial piece Bronx Gothic. Attempting to bring the plight of black women to audiences who don’t understand it, Okpokwasili put her own body on the line night after night to make the pain of the black woman real. July 12

500 Years

(Paladin) Pamela Yates. The Mayans built an amazing civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their descendants however faced extraordinary deprivation under Guatemalan President Jose Luis Rios Montt. Against all odds, the Mayan people stood up against his tyranny and against the violence being inflicted upon him and brought the dictator to trial. This is the amazing story about how an ancient people found their voice again. July 12

Birthright: A War Story

(Abramorama) Civia Tamarkin. It is no secret that abortion is an explosive topic of conversation in our country. Many women thought their rights to choose were protected thanks to Roe v. Wade but it has become clear in this era of conservative activism that is no longer true. Draconian laws have been enacted at the state and local level that have become so intrusive into the lives and reproduction of women that even some conservatives are uncomfortable. This documentary exposes the human cost of the Right to Life and the hypocrisy behind it. July 14

Chasing Coral

(Netflix) Andrew Ackerman, Mark Eakin, Luiz A. Rocha, Joanie Kleypas. From the team that brought us the sobering melting ice cap documentary Chasing Ice comes this new film that looks at the coral reefs, a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem. The world’s coral reefs have been dying at a terrifying rate, including the Great Barrier Reef, the oldest living thing on the planet. All hope is not lost but time is running out and action is required. July 14

Amnesia

(Film Movement) Marthe Keller, Max Riemett, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff. Master Director Barbet Schroeder brings us this tale of memory and loss. A DJ in a club called Amnesia in Ibiza is mesmerized by a lonely woman who comes to the club every night. He befriends her and as she slowly lets him in, she begins to reveal the past she has been trying to forget – only now she is trying to make peace with it. July 21

 Brigsby Bear

(Sony Classics) Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear. A strange and magical children’s television show, The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, has an audience of one – James. When the show ends abruptly, he finds that he cannot accept that his beloved show is gone. Therefore he decides to finish the show himself and maybe define himself in the process. It looks to have a bit of a Michel Gondry influence judging on the trailer. July 28