City of Ghosts review: A haunting documentary on how ISIS came into power in Syria

Mihir Fadnavis

Oct,13 2017 16:50 17 IST

4/5

(The 19th edition of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is finally here, and with it comes an unending list of critically acclaimed Indian and international films to watch. Firstpost will review the most promising of these films.)

While watching Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts I was taken back to a moment in The Thin Red Line, where a melancholic voiceover asks how did we humans end up like this, and what made us these terrible beings. As Heineman’s searing documentary footage continues to tear you apart, indeed the question arises whether we were always like this, and because we’re just more connected to each other, our awfulness seems amplified.

Heineman, who blew us away with drug cartel documentary Cartel Land two years ago is back with another film with disturbing subject matter – ISIS.

A still from City of Ghosts.

Much like his previous film Heineman follows a vigilante group committed to showcasing the brutalities of the terrorist organization, working in the shadows, risking their lives every single day. By now the formula is familiar, but with such potent material at play it’s difficult not to be shaken by the events transpiring on the screen. It’s also the rare film that opens your eyes to the idea of a democracy, and how it will continue to remain more an idea rather than actual reality.

The film does a great job of crisply explaining how ISIS suddenly came into power in Syria and how its ascent shifted the global political gears. An emotional voiceover talks about how Raqqa was a peaceful, forgotten little land, as a montage of every day life plays out, including a happy wedding. This is juxtaposed to the current state of Raqqa, a dust bowl garnished with dead bodies.

For all the coverage of ISIS over the years, one never stopped to think how a terrorist organization with a stranglehold over media managed to get mainstream attention. So it’s a moment of revelation when the film makes us realize the real heroes in this war – the young men of the RBSS who sneaked in video cameras during ISIS’ rise in the region. The terror group assumed power in the region under the guise of helping Syrians, but RBSS’ broadcast of their barbarisms told the world the truth.

Needless to say the film is not for the faint hearted. The footage is immediately painful – rife with brutal executions and bone chilling sloganeering from the terror group. It’s probably not as shocking as the stuff in Cartel Land, but only because we’re now so desensitized to ISIS’ atrocities. Come to think of it, that speaks a lot about how we humans normalize that should never be normalized.

In world where journalism is facing increasing amounts of clampdown, the RBSS’s journey is a wake up call.

Because no matter how entrenched democratic ideas become in a nation, there’s no stopping crazy religious megalomaniacs from initiating a dictatorship under the shadows. And the only way to stop and expose this virus is if citizens take up arms – pens and cameras in this case – and create awareness. It’s heartbreaking to see the members of the RBSS do this day after day, leaving their home behind, watching it burn from a foreign country where some of its citizens are racist towards brown people.

And if you’re wondering about the title of the film, it’s difficult to pin point who the ghosts in this film are.

On one hand it could be the victims of ISIS, whose massacres makes you wonder how we are at the least violent moment in the world’s history. On the other hand, after witnessing years of rape and public murders one can lose one’s soul, turning one into a ghost. As Heineman’s camera linger hauntingly on their faces, the dead eyed stares of the RBSS members say it all.