Friday 4 August 2017

Report from the interior: "City of Ghosts"

The documentarist Matthew Heineman first stormed cinemas with 2015's Cartel Land, an arresting, close-up study of the war on drugs, as experienced by the residents of one small Mexican town. A couple of years on, and perhaps Heineman now feels too old to be putting himself and his crew in the line of fire as he did, with alarming frequency, while making that breakthrough feature. His follow-up City of Ghosts tails behind others who've had cause to put themselves in a similar situation over the past half-decade - a small group of old friends who've spent that time witnessing their home, the Syrian city of Raqqa, fall into disarray, the result of first the failed uprising against the Assad regime, then the arrival of ISIS. 

Appalled by the propagandistic images their occupiers were dispatching to these rubble-strewn streets to the rest of the world, these young men snuck out their smartphones and began making covert, illicit recordings of life under the ISIS yoke, disseminating their footage via Facebook and Twitter. This people's news network - known online as RBSS, or Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently - quickly became a go-to source for Western news organisations looking to illustrate the Syrian crisis to their viewers, although broadcasting restrictions have meant the BBC, CNN et al. have had to blur or pixellate the worst of the atrocities the RBSS team caught on camera.

Heineman's film, bound by no such immediate restrictions, earns its 18 certificate very early on by including, uncensored, all the Syria footage you may have taken care to avoid on the Internet. Here are ISIS thugs mounting their victims on crosses and parading them through the streets; executing prisoners via gunshots to the back of the head or by throwing them off tall buildings; leaving corpses in the gutter and heads on spikes. It is nothing less than a horrorshow, medieval in its conception, but Heineman would doubtless argue we need to be confronted with such sights to fully understand the threat ISIS pose, both to civilisation in general and RBSS's reporters in particular.

Heineman actually comes to this story late: he joins the network's senior staff and leading lights after their cover was blown back home, a development that obliged them to flee - like many of their countrymen - across the border into Turkey and, from there, Germany. (As with Laura Poitras's recent whistleblowing diptych Citizenfour and Risk, it's a documentary where several of the most fraught scenes take place in anonymous hotel rooms and safehouses.) In exile, the RBSS journalists are welcomed as ambassadors for peace and championed as keepers of the free-speech flame - we first meet them accepting a Press Club gong - but they're subject to a terrible estrangement, aware the conflict they've been covering continues in their absence.

Certain commentators came away from Cartel Land wondering whether Heineman might be a lunatic hothead, forever racing towards the next hail of gunfire. Here, obliged to wait matters out with his subjects, he has greater time to analyse everything that passes over the wires and before his lens. Much of it is plainly alarming: Chris Morris would do well to come up with footage as disturbing as a "Caliphate Cubs" video, in which ISIS loyalists prompt toddlers to take knives to teddybears in preparation for bigger targets to come. The sophistry of the propaganda the RBSS team seek to counter is no less striking: watch the video that seemingly depicts the execution of one reporter's father - shot, cut and lit in a manner that wouldn't shame a superior B-movie - and wonder where these fanatics are getting their budgets.

Time similarly allows Heineman to note his subjects' conscience, troubled yet vast: when site editor Aziz is seen blurring out the faces of anybody whose life might be placed in danger before uploading a new clip, his action can be set in marked contrast with the publish-and-be-damned approach of one Julian Assange in the Wikileaks doc We Steal Secrets. Not that it helps these reporters themselves much. The assassination of a fellow traveller in Turkey is a mid-film reminder that the fundamentalists have come to move and operate some distance beyond their established strongholds. "The knife is at our necks," laments Aziz late on, and we feel the threat encroaching just as surely as we felt the bullets whizzing past our ears back in Cartel Land.

Even in exile, no-one seems especially secure. Heineman situates us at these refugees' shoulders as they attend a protest against a grunting right-wing rally at the Brandenburg Gate, and again as news breaks of terror attacks carried out by representatives of radical Islam elsewhere in mainland Europe; a quietly haunting final sequence makes all too clear the physical toll of having to counter such murderous hatred 24/7. What distinguished Cartel Land was Heineman's proximity to his subject, his willingness to put his body on the line to bring that story back; here, again, the closeness between Heineman the journalist and his journo subjects means there's very little distance between what the film describes - a determined, principled fightback - and what it is. Standing firm and refusing to cower, City of Ghosts packs a considerable punch as a work of defiance and resistance: every image these men retrieve is one ISIS would not want us to see, light with which to combat darkness.

City of Ghosts is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema. 

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