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

Beware the Gonzo


Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Jesse McCartney, Amy Sedaris, Campbell Scott, Judah Friedlander, Griffin Newman, Stefanie Hong, Edward Gelbinovich, James Urbaniak, Marc John Jefferies, Lucian Maisel, Jerry Grayson, Yul Vazquez, Steven Kaplan, Tyrone Brown, Noah Fleiss, Tyler Johnson, Lucy DeVito, Julia Weldon. Directed by Bryan Goluboff

High school is, contrary to what many folks think, not a microcosm of life, although there are some similarities. For example, those who are wealthy and good-looking tend to have advantages over those who are not. It is also very difficult to be noticed if you aren’t one of the aforementioned. Come to think of it, high school might very well be a microcosm of life.

Eddie Gilman (Miller) has aspirations. He longs to attend Columbia University and enter the undergraduate journalism program (note to screenwriter: they don’t have one). To that end he toils away on the school newspaper which is ruled with an iron fist by editor and jock Gavin Riley (McCartney) with the tacit support of Principal Roy (Urbaniak).

When Eddie’s hard-hitting expose on bullying in the school is brutally edited down to a single paragraph puff piece, he’s none too pleased and when he complains, Gavin fires him. Eddie’s future is suddenly in grave doubt.

But Eddie is a fighter. He decides to start his own newspaper and calls it the Gonzo Files. Gonzo journalism, as coined by Hunter S. Thompson, is a confrontational style of journalism and Eddie is certainly that. His mission is not only to get himself back on the track he was on but to write for the marginalized and the ignored.

The first issue is a sensation. Eddie and his team – rebellious school slut Evie Wallace (Kravitz) who harbors a dark secret but nonetheless becomes an item with Eddie, Horny Rob Becker (Newman) who goes after the less attractive girls because he figures that they’re easier to score with, Ming Na (Hong), an Asian-American with a chip on his shoulder and Schneeman (Gelbinovich) who is a very much picked-on smart kid – use a web presence with video to blow things wide open in school which neither Gavin nor Principal Roy are pleased about. However, when the second issue features an expose on the school cafeteria complete with pictures and videos of vermin in the storeroom, that garners attention on the school that the Principal is really unhappy about and so the nascent publication is ordered shut down.

Eddie has no intentions of doing that however – after all, he founded it because he felt it necessary to have a free press in school – but the fame and the high of being a celebrity in school has gone to his head. It could cost him everything – his future, his parents’ marriage, his friends and the girl.

This is one of those movies that have some glaring flaws but is offset by some really good writing. If the characters are a bit stereotypical – the sadistic jock, the rebel, the geek, the snobby cheerleaders, the bureaucratic administrator – they are at least talking and acting like real people (mostly). Miller, who is cornering the market on teen angst in movies like We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Here his character isn’t quite as realized as fully as Kevin but there certainly is plenty of angst. Miller was electric in the former movie and although he’s merely good enough here, looks ready to be a breakout star.

Kravitz, the daughter of pop singer Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet, in some ways might relate more to the beautiful people clique of the school – she certainly has the beautiful part down (considering her genes, how could she not?). I admired her performance more than any in the movie; her character not coincidentally has the most depth to it in the script. Evie has some real suffering in her background and Kravitz brings it forward nicely; when she’s betrayed late in the movie you can see the hurt in her eyes. She’s another one to watch.

Veterans Sedaris and Scott are dependable actors but are wasted here, sadly. Most of the rest of the predominantly young cast do decent jobs here some in thankless stereotype roles. I have to admit that there are some cathartic moments where the very snooty and cruel upper crusters get their comeuppance. I’m not proud of it but sometimes it’s a good for the soul to see the privileged get theirs.

I thought this movie was about how acclaim and adoration corrupt everyone, no matter how well-intentioned although I haven’t seen that anywhere else in the reviews I read. The movie is told as a flashback and when Eddie intones at the start “All in all, I got off easy,” he’s right on target. This isn’t about the rise of the righteous or the fall of the affluent – it’s about the redemption of the ego, which can be the hardest place to come back from. As Eddie has to weigh getting the story against the effect that the story will have on people he cares about, the movie comes to grips with an ethical question that many journalists have had to face in their careers in one form or another. Like Eddie, there were no easy answers for them either.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever in places. A bit of a guilty pleasure.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unrealistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Basic teen misbehavior and a bit of foul language as well as brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Goluboff is best known for writing the screenplay for The Basketball Diaries.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of a High School President

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shadow of the Vampire