SIFF Film Review – City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts

Raqqa, a city in Syria, has been overtaken by ISIS and a select few are doing what they can to find out the truth about what is happening in their home town. This is to be applauded, yet City of Ghosts is strong on information but lacks the emotional bite to be truly memorable. Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of former residents of Raqqa that have been able to escape to spread stories about what it is like in ISIS hands, has been risking their lives getting out shots showing it is nowhere near close to being the Islamic paradise that ISIS has been claiming.

There are some very brutal scenes of people being shot execution style on-screen that are not hidden from the audience. We also see reporters watching videos of their own family members killed, or hearing about people we have seen being killed and their reaction. These scenes do a great job of presenting a visual image of ISIS terror that makes it more real than just reading about it. After these scenes they give clearer details about what ISIS is doing to keep order and to try to stop any information from coming out of their self-declared capital. Intermixed as well we see what ISIS does to recruit among the townsfolk and beyond that shows their professionalism but also their total lack of empathy. A truly disturbing scene of them training a young child is one that needs to be seen to be believed. These moments are truly informative and let us see what is unthinkable for most of us to comprehend.

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A lot of the film though is simply seeing the RBSS members talking about what is happening and about where they need to go to be safe or as safe as they think they can be. This is very much the truth of their situation as ISIS has either directly killed people they know or inspired others to go after them. Yet as important as their work is and how much risk they have taken they are not really given personalities beyond this mission to the point that I couldn’t tell them apart and as just a film narrative these scenes don’t really add anything new to what we already have learned from the first twenty minutes. This is a more informative piece of cinema rather than a character-based one, but while these individuals are passionate about what they are doing there is a sense of disconnection to them that I had hard time defining. Seeing death is brutal and hearing about it you always feel horrified, but unless we know the person or are connected emotionally we have hard time letting it really affect us, and that is sadly the case with this film.

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Director Matthew Heineman, maker of Cartel Land – another documentary about dark things happening, has great skill in getting people to let him have access that would seem impossible for most people, and in terms getting the story of “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” out to a wider audience he is doing them a great service when he tries to intermix RBSS members’ interactions with real time showing of how ISIS is responding to these journalists to see what is changing on the ground. However, with Cartel Land he had two intriguing, charismatic but deeply flawed individuals that we observed that kept the narrative moving with a true level beyond giving us only the facts or their missions. We saw what motivates their actions, and allows us to understand them better by showing instead of telling us.

This movie left me very conflicted in that I responded to the message but not the film overall. I wanted to find out what ISIS is up to in that region of the world and what work is being done to take them out and free this city. Yet this information is repeated in a lot of the same ways–seeing the members of RBSS just meeting up, being happy to see each other and yet fearful about what the future holds for them. We know enough about what this group is doing and get a clearer viewpoint about ISIS tactics, yet there are some seriously slower moments that detract from that information and none of these individuals has the clear screen presence that makes them intriguing to watch just as themselves. When I watched The Invisible War, a documentary about rape in the military, besides informing me about what had happened to those who had been raped, the directors allowed me to see them as people and how they truly suffered, which was what turned it from a merely informative film into something that I want to revisit. City of Ghosts is very informative but I doubt it is a documentary that will last beyond its initial message.


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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