Fighting ISIS With Camcorders in a ‘City of Ghosts’

In another war zone, Matthew Heineman exchanges nihilism for hope, sentiment and journalists.

An organization known as ISIS, also known as ISIL, also known as IS, are known to be, to use loaded parlance, pretty bad hombres. Since 2015, the organization has ruled over a chunk of Western Iraq and a swath of a presidential missile target called Syria. Maybe you’ve heard of a city called Aleppo. Maybe not — Gary Johnson hadn’t. Well, inside that sizable swath is another city called Raqqa. The latest from Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) takes the form of a 90-minute profile of another organization, whose name I will bother spelling out because it’s a juicy one: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). They’re from Raqqa. A small media group operating out of a mysterious location in Germany and a variety of hidden locations in Raqqa, their stories are occasionally picked up by the Associated Press and the BBC. Heineman’s pitch: they’re fighting ISIS, man.

“ISIS has,” Richard Beck wrote in n+1 earlier this year, “assumed al-Qaeda’s former place as America’s preeminent terrorist bogeyman.” The comparison to last decade’s Big Evil is the cause of some squeamishness; the name of the former rightfully evokes elongated wars and regime change under false pretexts (the group once marketed itself as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” to capitalize on this). More squeamish is the absence of nuance that loaded terms bring to the table. At Sundance, Heineman’s subjects were granted a roaring ovation when they were dragged out for a Q&A after the City of Ghosts premiere.

Cartel Land, which netted Heineman an Oscar nod for Best Documentary Feature, is a complex study of a complex political dynamic: Autodefensas fighting the drug cartels in Michoacán slowly torn apart by volatile inner politics. Meanwhile, at the Arizona border, Heineman filmed an unemployed fellow watching Fox News from his couch and fruitlessly searching for drug runners in the nearby brush. It was nihilistically bracketed by a nighttime interview with cartel meth cooks who shrugged and called the whole thing a charade. “I never knew who I was with — the good guys or the bad guys,” Heineman was quoted as saying at the time.

Members of ISIS, I take it, are less easy to score an interview with. City of Ghosts has good guys, and they are the ones in it. Formed in the wake of Raqqa’s takeover by ISIS forces, RBSS is presented as a loose network of camcorder-holding volunteers who document all those evil things ISIS is known for doing and secretly transmit them to members in Turkey and later Germany who post it on their website and hock it to major news networks. City of Ghosts is rich with those images: beheadings and other executions aren’t edited out, and the director claims some of the ISIS brutality you’ll get is never before seen.

Like Cartel Land’s semi-automatic-waving members of the Autodefensas, there is a ramshackle charm to the David vs. Goliath battle set up in City of Ghosts. Further superficial similarities to Cartel Land abound: Heineman has a fondness for vérité shots of men working from couches and watching television while making meaningful expressions. And, like Cartel Land’s profile of Mireles, a doctor who continued his clinic while taking over as the self-proclaimed chief of police, this film’s subjects are emphasized as ordinary people with likably ordinary jobs. The members of RBSS diligently spend some time talking about their pasts as school teachers.

More importantly, City of Ghosts develops Heineman’s use of intensely location-specific studies to make agitprop statements about larger issues. There is very little in the film about the larger civil war in Syria, bomb strikes, Kurdish nationalists or even Sunni and Shiite discord (the latter absence is even more curious, since RBSS has been accused of opposing U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters’ attempts to take Raqqa from ISIS). One of the largest actors in the scene, Turkey, is only mentioned as a place where RBSS is stationed until they move to Germany out of fear of reprisals.

The only issue mentioned is the refugee crisis, when members of RBSS are shown attending a counter-protest of a xenophobic rally in Berlin. Heineman films this sassily, his camera fixing on the use of black iconography among certain neo-Nazis, drawing a visual comp to ISIS regalia. The point is honed by a member of RBSS who explains that ISIS is symbolic of some greater evil, the kind everywhere. The war in Syria may be a sticky maze involving nearly a quarter of the world, but City of Ghosts is a duel with two players.

The film is, otherwise, a deification. It begins literarily so: Heineman opens with a ceremony anointing RBSS some award for courageous journalism given by journalists and, toward its end, a clip is cut in of David Remnick waxing poetic about heroism from a podium. And because heroes are the kind of people who put themselves on crosses, Heineman shoots an extensive scene of members of RBSS refusing protection from well-meaning German police. They want to walk among the people, they tell the camera.

Journalism is also, per City of Ghosts, a man’s game. Members of RBSS are shown with wives who linger in the background and pack the clothes when dangerous journalism work requires transplant. They are not interviewed. Instead, one of them gives birth and Heineman films some of this, milking the moment as the child’s father goes on about how important the work he is doing is, especially, with a child in his hands. I could not help but think there was complex discussion to be had in what did these women think about their husbands overturning their ordinary lives in pursuit of David Remnick’s pat on the back?

Riding the coattails of a moment where everyone from The New York Times and The New Republic to Teen Vogue and BuzzFeed are marketing themselves as needed truth tellers in this age of fake news, City of Ghosts works best as a smart study of the way those media trends operate and form naturalistically, outside of the presence of media conglomerates and the need to sell advertisements for pizza.

Its most interesting moments come in the movie’s coverage of the message war between ISIS and RBSS. Shots of ISIS propaganda are juxtaposed with the carefully cut RBSS footage that is sent to Western media outlets. Home-grown media machines, both: one apes Hollywood video game drama, the other apes our own melodramatic 24-hour news coverage. “We don’t just repeat the news,” an RBSS member tells Heineman. In a war of words, you have to bring your own. There’s always evil to be found; evil, everywhere.

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