The civil war in Syria has now been blazing for six years. Nearly half a million people have been killed. Roughly 11 million have been displaced. The end is nowhere in sight. The only hope at this point is to get the word out to the rest of the world so that they will be guilted into action. Matthew Heineman’s urgent and timely new documentary, City of Ghosts, attempts to do just that, thankfully without resorting to the kind of didacticism that can undermine advocacy films like this one. Heineman, the director of the gripping Oscar-nominated 2015 drug-war exposé Cartel Land, finds his way into the sprawling conflict by chronicling the work of citizen-journalist collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an anonymous group of Syrians who courageously gather and disseminate grim news and video shot on the sly from inside the city they once called home — a formerly bustling place that became the main base of ISIS.
One by one we meet these inspiring reporters as they risk their lives (and the lives of their families) to stand up to the barbarity of terrorism and totalitarian rule, armed with nothing more than stealth, their wits, and the globe-spanning reach of the internet. Even the lucky ones who manage to get out of Syria to safe houses in Germany or Turkey keep resisting, reporting, and publishing in exile. As the world slowly wrestles with how to fight ISIS, here’s a story of a handful of intrepid individuals who don’t have the luxury of waiting. City of Ghosts shows us what journalism can do in the face of evil. Its message is haunting, humane, and ultimately hopeful. A–