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Bearing Witness: ‘City of Ghosts’

We all have a sense of the power of video, but seeing "City of Ghosts," Matthew Heineman's documentary about the civil war in Syria, may give you a new perspective.

We all have a sense of the power of video—to capture, to communicate, to connect, to advocate—but seeing City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman’s (Twitter: @MattHeineman) documentary about the civil war in Syria, may give you a new perspective.

Heineman’s film follows a collection of anonymous activists who joined together after their town, Raqqa, was captured by ISIS in 2014, forming Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). As citizen journalists, RBSS members face an uncertain future, though one sure to be lived covertly and on the run, as they document the reality of life under the ISIS regime.

“I knew almost immediately that I wanted the spine of the story to be deeply personal vérité footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members by ISIS,” he says.

“I wanted to juxtapose this present-day journey with the dramatic footage they had captured—and were continuing to capture—inside Raqqa. Since ISIS took over the city in March 2014, journalists have been unable to enter the region, allowing the caliphate to control the narrative of what is happening inside the city with its slick propaganda videos. So the RBSS footage, including some that has never been released, provides a unique, up-close and visceral window into daily life in Raqqa.

“The contrast of ISIS videos, which proclaim a fully functioning and prosperous state, with those of RBSS, which capture the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking. In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not just guns.

“Over the year that I spent with the group, I was surprised that the film became so much more than the chronicles of RBSS versus ISIS,” Heineman concludes. “The more I shot with them, the more the story twisted and turned into one that also touched on the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood, and [their] haunting relationship with trauma.”

City of Ghosts opens in theaters in New York on July 7 and Los Angeles on July 14.