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

Burma VJ


Burma VJ

A courageous videographer documents events from the Saffron Revolution.

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) “Joshua,” Aung San Suu Kyi. Directed by Anders Ostergaard

We take freedom for granted in a big way. While we can take the news we watch with a grain of salt, at least the government doesn’t completely censor any criticism of it with an iron fist. Our reporters don’t get thrown in jail and tortured for reporting the news.

That sounds far-fetched and yet it does happen in Burma, regularly. The country also known as Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta as repressive and cruel as any in the world today. Internet use is severely restricted and information flows at a sluggish pace. The news in and out of the country is limited; few in the West are truly aware of what takes place in Burma. In fact, many people in Burma itself are unaware of what’s going on in their own country.

However, there are a group of Burmese citizens, armed with small video cameras that are determined to make sure that the news of what’s happening in their country is documented and sent out for the world to see, including their own country. They are called the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The organization is headquartered in Oslo; the images and videos are smuggled out to them, and the news is then beamed by satellite into Burma and throughout the world. Those who carry the cameras risk terrible reprisals to themselves and their families if they are caught.

Few of them, such as “Joshua,” a young 27-year-old man who acts as our proxy in the DVB, have known anything but oppression and fear other than for a few weeks when there have been occasional uprisings. The junta, in place since 1962, has dealt with every challenge to its authority with absolute and merciless violence and arrests.

In August of 2007, the leaders of Burma added an arbitrary fuel tax that doubled the prices of gasoline and other fuels . This became intolerable to the average Burmese citizen and protests began to break out in the capital of Rangoon. At first, the government dealt with these the way they always did – by arresting those who would raise their voices against them. However, the people had reached a breaking point and thousands upon thousands took up the call.

Crucially, they were supported by the Buddhist monks of their country, perhaps the only other group within Burma that could take on the cruel military dictatorship. The powers that be in Burma allowed the Buddhists to protest, even allowing them to meet with Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a leader of the 1988 revolution who had been under house arrest since then and a woman revered by the Burmese people.

However, as it became apparent that the protests were growing in scope, the government began to do the unthinkable – a crackdown against the religious leaders of their nation. Hundreds of monks were arrested and many disappeared. Soldiers fired into crowds of protesters and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of peaceful protesters. The world would never have known if it weren’t for the images smuggled out by the DVB.

Director Ostergaard put together the footage, much of it never seen before, into a very compelling story that illustrates the incredible bravery not only of the protesters but of the videographers themselves. One gets a sense of the pervasive fear that dominates Burmese society, and the yearning for something better than what they all have.

This is a dictatorship that has stood for almost half a century and it doesn’t appear that it will be going away anytime soon. Watching this documentary makes you appreciate your own freedom and pray for the day when the people of Burma can enjoy their own. Perhaps we will see that day in our own lifetime; I sincerely hope so. Perhaps documentaries like this one will be the first step in that direction.

WHY RENT THIS: A depiction of bravery on a massive scale from a part of the world that is rarely depicted.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like powerful documentaries that teach you something about injustice in other parts of the world, you should go ahead and watch the next installment in the Twilight series.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film is unrated, some of the themes are rather adult and there are some scenes in which there is violence; teens who are interested in the region will find this suitable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several videographers depicted in the film have since been arrested and jailed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Crossing Midnight, a short document about Dr. Cynthia Maung who fled to Thailand in 1988 and founded the Mao Tae clinic along with several other medical personnel.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Crazy Love