A scene from CITY OF GHOSTS, courtesy of Amazon Studios / IFC Films.
In Raqqa, Syria, a campaign launched by citizen journalists is exposing the atrocities committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the extremist group ISIS. And these brave, young journalists are embarking on this journey with nothing but their pens and cameras.
The campaign is called “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), and for the first time ever the story of these journalists will be captured on the big screen. Premiering at the TriBeca Film Festival, the documentary “City of Ghosts” follows their lives and provides a unique perspective on the Syrian conflict.
The film tells a cruel story of trauma, resettlement, propaganda waged war, and the struggle to reclaim a city that once belonged to everyday citizens.
Since their formation in 2013, the activists and journalists, former high school teachers and college students who are the protagonists of this story, have lived on the run from the extremist group, ducking in and out of safe houses throughout Raqqa, Germany, and neighboring Turkey.
Pictures of their homes, their faces, their families are tweeted and shared among the terrorist group. When caught, they’re tortured, killed — their bodies left in public as a gruesome warning for all to see.
And yet, against all odds, RBSS continues to operate both in and out of the caliphate’s capital, showing the world this blacked out city. Raqqa, as the documentary portrays, is a city in shambles: there are no schools, no hospitals, no television, and many times, no electricity. There is no aid, no contact with the outside world, no hope.
In 2015, RBSS received the Committee to Protect Journalists Award for International Press Freedom.
Global Citizen spoke with the director of “City of Ghosts,” Matthew Heineman, the American filmmaker best known for his 2015 documentary Cartel Land about the Mexican drug war.
Here’s how he found this story and what he learned in his effort to tell it to the world:
Global Citizen: When and how did you first conceive the idea for this film?
Heineman: I was traveling around the world for my last film Cartel Land and it was just sort of becoming front page news and I started reading obsessively about what was happening [in Raqqa] and trying to see if there was a way to tell the story....I read this one article in the New Yorker by David Remnick that scooped Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of friends who came together to show the world what ISIS was doing to their hometown — Raqqa, Syria, the capital of ISIS. And right when I read that article I knew that that was my way into the story and the humane way to the topic and so I reached out to the guys to see if they would be interested in being followed for months, if not, years and eventually they said yes.
Global Citizen: When you sat down to make this film, did you know how you were going to cover RBSS’ story?
Heineman: Yes and no. I think one of the things that I love about making documentaries and telling stories like this is letting the story evolve naturally. I originally knew that I wanted the through line of the film to sort of be their exodus from Syria after they started to expose ISIS and [the group] actually began to target them and kill them one by one. Many of the members were forced to flee and so I knew that I wanted to capture this exodus to Turkey and to Europe and other places. That that was the spine of the story, while constantly cutting back and forth to the amazing footage that they captured within Raqqa to show life in the Caliphate.
While I knew that that was my original structure, what I didn’t know is what the film would ultimately become much more than that. It would become a story about a propaganda war between ISIS and RBSS. It also became an immigrant story of these guys finding themselves in a new land and what that meant. It became a story of the rise of nationalism in Europe. It became a story about trauma and how one deals with trauma. So for me it began as one thing but became much more than that.
Global Citizen: Just out of curiosity, what were you experiences like filming RBSS in Germany, as opposed to Turkey? Were there distinctive challenges? How did they differ?
Heineman: It was a very, very difficult film to make for a whole host of reasons — their security being number one. Much of the film takes place in safe houses and in transit so we communicated through encrypted means, we were very careful on how and where we filmed, and that was very difficult in both Turkey and in Germany.
Global Citizen: Could you further elaborate on why RBSS was so willing to expose their identities, show their faces?
Heineman: Several members of the group had their identities already out there but as we said in the film, they felt that they no longer wanted to hide behind the veneer of social media. They wanted to show the world that they were real people, that they were from Raqqa, they didn’t want to hide behind the anonymity of their online persona. That was a very brave thing to do and it’s something that they feel passionate about — to come out of the shadows and show who they were, despite the dangers that that might bring.
Global Citizen: How prepared were you and your team? What safety precautions did you have to take?
Heineman: We were very, very conscientious about how we communicated internally, how we communicated with the guys at RBSS. We were very, very careful with our footage and making sure that it was in safe places. We were in constant contact with the guys as well so that nothing that we were capturing would put them in danger... their safety was always paramount.
Global Citizen: How much does your film serve as a mouthpiece for Syrian civil journalists as it does for Syrian refugees and the refugee crisis?
Heineman: I think the film is many things to many different people. It’s a homage to journalism and the importance of truth, especially in this age of “fake news.” We’re relying more and more on journalists, as foreign bureaus and budgets are shrinking. As the democratization of technology is allowed, citizen journalists have become a really important source of information.
These guys risk their lives to capture this footage, to capture this information, to tell the story of what’s happening in their hometown and they pay the highest price to do so. That’s another reason we wanted to make the film — to tell the story of their friends who died in this fight. But, as you said, it’s also an immigrant story. It’s many things to me.
Global Citizen: What kind of measures should be taken to protect and further the work of citizen journalists?
Heineman: There’s many important causes in the world and many things to fight for but I’d put citizen journalists who are operating in the most dangerous places in the world to shed light on what’s happening, near the top of things — for me. If it wasn’t for these guys, we wouldn’t know what was happening. Raqqa is just completely blacked out — there’s no information coming in or out...and this is the case for many places.
It’s the case for journalists in Mexico — where my last film took place and where another journalist was just killed only a couple days ago. That makes about three in one month. Syria, I believe, is the most dangerous place to report on in the world. Citizen journalists are filling a void in societies where information is hard to get. I think there’s no greater cause than that.
Global Citizen: What do you hope this film will accomplish? What do you hope people will take away?
Heineman: There’s no specific goal I have in mind, there’s no policy position I’m trying to push or meet. I try to tell stories about people doing extraordinary things and I hope that through this story, that is both visceral and emotional, people will care more. That they’ll care more about Syria, about what’s happening in Syria, about citizens that are living under extremist rule, and that it helps them gain a much better understanding as well. Beyond that, I think that it’s sort of up to people to further the ideas and the information that are in the film. But there’s no particular agenda that I’m trying to push.
Global Citizen: What overall challenges presented themselves that were similar or different between filming "Cartel Land" and "City of Ghosts"?
Heineman: On one hand, "City of Ghosts" and "Cartel Land" are thematically similar. They’re about everyday citizens rising up to fight against people. In the case of "Cartel Land", it was citizens who rose up with arms to fight violence with violence. In "City of Ghosts", it was citizens rising up to expose evil through pens, cameras, and computers.
While these two are similar, the larger theme is much different and those differences also related to the production process. "Cartel Land" was an extraordinarily frightening film to shoot where I was under direct gunfire, I was in safe houses and meth labs. Whereas this danger was more existential. I didn’t see people with guns, I didn’t see all this violence up close and personal. I saw the result of them.