By Gabrielle Hunt Managing Editor
A few weeks ago, I went to the D.C. premiere of City of Ghosts, a documentary following the lives of citizen journalists covering the Islamic state’s occupation of Raqqa. The journalists, who banned together under the name “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) in 2014 when the city was captured by ISIS, brave threats to their work— and very lives — both within Syria, and even in the safe houses outside the country to which they’ve relocated.
City of Ghosts, as a work capturing the evolution of grassroots reporting via the rise of social media, is a powerful look into twenty-first century journalism. For that, it’s a fabulous documentary for those involved in journalism, or simply anyone compelled by passion to promote truth against all odds. RBSS’s commitment to documenting ISIS’s occupation of Raqqa — at risk of torture and death — is gripping, haunting, and uplifting all at the same time.
But for those not involved in journalism, City of Ghosts is a film that captures both the plight of suffering and the tremendous resilience of the human spirit. It is one of the most poignant, shattering takes on the Syrian civil war, and as a work on catastrophic loss and system failure, it is an important, necessary, and unforgettable account of one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.
I struggle to call it a must-see though, particularly because City of Ghosts is harrowingly graphic. Yes, it is a documentary that I believe everyone who can see it should see it. But, even as someone openly critical of current trends in pervasive trigger warnings and censorship, I struggle to recommend it without a very serious content advisory: City of Ghosts is incredibly difficult to watch. It features assassinations, murders, violence, and other disturbing images and themes. The graphic nature is a deliberate, powerful measure on the director’s part, and it certainly makes the brutality of living under ISIS easier to conceptualize. Nonetheless, it is still deeply troubling and overwhelming to watch these things, and so I believe that if there is ever a time to issue a content warning, it is for this film.
However, some of the most powerful scenes — the ones that have stuck with me even weeks later — are not graphic in nature. One scene, in particular, is the funeral of Naji al Jerf, RBSS’s co-founder and filmmaker, who is largely credited in the film for training the citizen journalists. His 2015 assassination was met with public outcry; the scene capturing his funeral captures many people weeping and chanting Allahu akbar, or God is greatest. The profession of faith is resoundingly powerful and emblematic; juxtaposed against the horrific scenes in the film of ISIS members yelling Allahu akbar before killing prisoners, Jerf’s scene is a testament to both the unbreakable nature of the human spirit, and that Islam, the religion of peace, trumps political Islamism.
There is another similarly emblematic scene capturing the resilience of the Syrian people, which depicted the silent demonstration of Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza, the de facto English spokesperson for RBSS, and a group of Syrian refugees against a white nationalist rally in Germany. As rally-goers harassed and berated the group, the refugees remained silent and composed. It was a striking visual reminder of how poignant peaceful protest can be.
Further, many scenes serve as a reminder that defeating ISIS — described as a fikra, or ideology — will require more than just coalition military campaigns and brute force. Truly dismantling the pervasiveness of extremism in the region will require massive re-education programs to reverse the effects of indoctrination, particularly in young children. One part of the documentary focuses on the camps ISIS puts on for its “caliphate cubs,” camps that employ typical tropes of acceptance and altruism to lure children into becoming fighters. Clips from the cinematic promotional videos depicting ISIS fighters running in the streets, leading small children to implied victory and salvation are disturbing, but they are also powerful reminders that post-conflict Syria and Iraq will require extensive resources to combat the production value ISIS puts into convincing vulnerable groups of people of its legitimacy.
The most poignant scene of the film is the last.
Aziz is shown in his house, which is in an undisclosed location in Germany, having what appears to be a mental breakdown. He has just returned from the police station after declining protection despite the German police force’s urging (they had become concerned in response to increasingly aggressive threats on Aziz’s life from ISIS). He, one of the most visible leaders of RBSS, is depicted throughout City of Ghosts as strong, resilient, and able to compartmentalize his pain. However, in this scene, he is uncontrollably shaking and crying. As he continually chain-smokes cigarettes, the camera pans to the carton, which reads, “Smoking kills.” The angle remains on the carton for an uncomfortable period — a few seconds too long — which helps to render the words meaningless, if not even ludicrous in comparison to the ordeals Aziz, and even RBSS as a whole, have overcome.
It is one of the most powerful scenes of documentary filmmaking I have ever encountered, and will stay impressed in my memory for a long time.