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‘City of Ghosts’: A harrowing documentary on ISIS

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A reminder of what good journalism can accomplish; that the filmmakers are non-professionals makes it all the more remarkable.

By the time images appear onscreen showing jihadists teaching toddlers to behead teddy bears while shouting Allahu Akbar, most sane individuals will be ready to exclaim, “Enough, this kind of thing cannot be allowed to continue!” That’s pretty much the point, though, behind the new documentary from Matthew Heineman, City of Ghosts. Now making its way into cinemas, the film follows the efforts of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a mostly anonymous group of anti-Islamist activists determined to expose the atrocities occurring in their homeland.

In March 2103, various rebel factions overran the government of the Syrian city of Raqqa. Not long after, ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh) moved in and declared the city their de facto capital. Enemies of the Islamic State were captured and executed, foreign journalists were ejected, and most contact with the outside world was cut off. Once secreted away, ISIS felt free to inflict its will on the citizens of Raqqa with little fear of exposure.

By 2014, however, photos and videos depicting the ongoing activities of ISIS in Raqqa began to appear on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. A small group of “citizen journalists” calling itself Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently had emerged to chronicle the oppressive actions being carried out against the city’s populace. The response from ISIS was predictable; find whatever heretics were behind RBSS and kill them.

Sadly, the terrorists have had some success. Since 2014, members of RBSS have been hanged, shot, decapitated, or otherwise mysteriously died while in custody. That is why over the runtime of City of Ghosts we meet precious few members of the group itself. What interviews there are come from those four or five expatriates who have hidden themselves away in Europe where they are free to upload information smuggled from Raqqa to the internet. As for those individuals still within the city’s borders who risk death to gather that information, we are shown nothing of them except for their work.

And it is powerful work indeed. Some of what we see is expected, but nonetheless shocking, such as lines of men kneeling in the sand awaiting execution. There are also many somber images of the war-torn city, its once proud buildings reduced to apocalyptic rubble from the ongoing conflict between ISIS and U.S.-led coalition forces. Then there are disturbing scenes such as the aforementioned teddy bear decapitation in which ISIS troops train young “Caliphate Cubs” in the ways of terrorism. The rational mind wants to reject the reality of such images, but the visual evidence is undeniable.

Almost as unsettling are the captured instances of Islamic troops closing down public cafés and confiscating satellite dishes, all in an effort to control the free flow of information. As the images gathered by RBBS amply demonstrate, the aim of ISIS is not simply conquest, but indoctrination. They are not content to rule over the tens of thousands of Muslims, Christians, and other inhabitants of Raqqa who don’t subscribe to their ways. It is convert to their twisted form of Islam or die.

Justified or not, it’s undeniable that the profession of journalist has lost a lot of its luster in the West as of late. Sadly, modern journalism has sunken into such a state of disrepair that a recent NPR/Marist poll showed nearly 70 percent of Americans have little to no trust in the media at all. As “journalists,” however, the members of RBBS are the real deal. Their singular goal is to document and expose the truth, and they are willing to risk their own lives to do so. Their story is a reminder of what good journalism can accomplish, and the fact that they are non-professionals makes them all the more remarkable. Watch City of Ghosts and you’ll surely agree.

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