‘City of Ghosts’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

‘Cartel Land’ filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s terribly sad story is one of three Syria-related documentaries at the festival this year.

Pushing ahead with his documentation of some of the world’s most dangerous places, Cartel Land filmmaker Matthew Heineman tells a terribly sad story in City of Ghosts. Focusing on a ragtag band of “citizen journalists” who, at increasingly great risk, determine to let the outside world know about the ravaging of their native city of Raqqa, Syria, by the forces of the Islamic State group, the film effectively serves the dual purpose of exhibiting the rape of a city in a way not seen before and conveying the feeling of helplessness experienced by those who have managed to flee to the West. One of three Syria-related documentaries at Sundance this year, this will be welcome wherever political and current events-related documentaries are shown.

The Bottom Line

Tragedy upon tragedy in Raqqa.

There have been countless films — fiction and documentary — that have focused on crusading and courageous journalists, but maybe never any in which he practitioners were under certain threat of execution if caught. But so it is with the young school pals who, during the Arab Spring of 2012, started reporting on the anti-Assad movement of which Raqqa was a hotbed.

There were about 15 of them then, some political, others not particularly, and from appearances, a number were just nerdy techies rather than revolutionary firebrands. But they were alert young guys with computers and phone cameras, and they soon gained a following.

When Islamic State tanks rolled into the city in July 2014, the stakes became much higher. Public executions started at once and the cameras kept shooting, despite the quick imposition of rules against it. In a possibly unprecedented way, the viewer gets a sense of what Islamic State takeover means: While in some ways day-to-day life goes on, there can be a sudden round-up of people — almost invariably young men — who are then summarily executed in public, shot in the head usually, or pushed off buildings (any head chopping goes unseen, although children are shown being indoctrinated to enthuse about it).

These and so many other dreadful images were presumably distributed illicitly at the time and now provide the viewer with an unprecedented appreciation for what went on in the formerly cosmopolitan city. The rape of Raqqa, as it was legitimately called, was not reported internationally at the time, and so threatened did these secret correspondents feel that, when one of them was captured and executed, along with his father, the remaining guerrilla reporters began leaving, mostly for Turkey.

In exile, degrees and spells of despair and lethargy set in until even Turkey no longer feels safe, triggering further flight to Germany, where the refugees and, in some cases, wives, revel in the freedom and luxury of the West, even when continued Islamic State threats oblige them to live in safe houses.

Although the cause of reporting about the Islamic State group, Syria and threats worldwide continues, the parallel heartbreaking factor made evident in the documentary is the destruction of a culture, a country, a network of friendships and the hollowing out of individual lives by the enforced diaspora. You can see it in the physical posture of most of the refugees, the way they speak, the somewhat forced bonhomie that you know will soon be followed by hollow talk and silences. Even if these survivors of the worst have reasons to be grateful in their exile, they seem like partial ghosts of their former selves.

So Heineman offers up a double portrait of devastation, of a truly destroyed city and of partially decimated survivors, leaving the viewer with an empathetic sense of deep sorrow.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production: A&E Films, Our Time Projects
Director: Matthew Heineman
Producer: Matthew Heineman
Executive producers: Alex Gibney, Molly Thompson, Elaine Frontain Bryant, David Fialkow. Stacey Offman, Rob Sharenow, Maiken Baird
Director of photography: Matthew Heineman
Editors: Matthew Hamachek, Pax Wassermann, Matthew Heineman
Music: Jackson Greenberg, H. Scott Salinas
93 minutes