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Movie Review

Documentary follows ISIS opponents in Syria

Aziz leads a group of Syrian citizen journalists in “City of Ghosts.”
Aziz leads a group of Syrian citizen journalists in “City of Ghosts.” Studios/A&E IndieFilms/IFC Films

As we ponder the future of our country, we can take heart from the heroes of the infuriating and inspiring documentary “City of Ghosts,” directed by Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”) — and the citizen journalists of the Syrian group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

Unlike them, we have yet to witness the severed heads of enemies of the state decorating the fences of public squares, gay people thrown off rooftops, or dissidents crucified — some of the more brutal images covertly captured by their cameras in the capital of the ISIS caliphate, Raqqa. They persevere even as friends, family members, and fellow resistance activists are kidnapped, tortured, and executed by the fanatics in charge. This is a hard movie to watch, and even more painful to think about.


These volunteers (those profiled are all male) are ordinary people who felt compelled to become activists after the Arab Spring unleashed a rebellion against the tyrannical Assad government, causing a political vacuum that ISIS brutally exploited.

They include Aziz, a former hard-partying college student who now heads the organization; Hamoud, a cofounder of RBSS, who strengthens his resolve by watching the video ISIS took of the execution of his father (a brother was subsequently murdered and another is missing); Hussam, a law student turned reporter who was nearly nabbed by ISIS with encrypted video on his phone; and Mohamad, a former math teacher who joined the revolt against Assad after a student was arrested and has since followed up with resistance to the caliphate.

ISIS meanwhile counters RBSS’s truth campaign with a campaign of its own, disseminating on the Internet videos glorifying its victories, atrocities (shown graphically as recruitment snuff films), the “Eden” of the caliphate itself. They have the sophistication of Hollywood videos, except the graphic atrocities glorifying jihad are not special effects. RBSS doggedly responds to this twisted narrative with images of those suffering under ISIS rule — not just from draconian sharia law but from starvation, poverty, and a lack of basic medical care and other services.


With many of their fellow reporters murdered and themselves in imminent danger of capture, these members went into exile, some in Turkey, others in Germany. Even there they are not safe from ISIS assassins. And in one of many cruel ironies, some in the supposed refuge of Germany face threats from a growing anti-refugee, xenophobic militancy demanding that foreigners be tossed out. Those in our country who believe the same thing might do well to watch this infuriating documentary.

★ ★ ★ ½

Directed by Matthew Heineman. At Coolidge Corner. 91 minutes. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, and for some language). In English and Arabic with subtitles.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.