Film Review: City of Ghosts Looks Unflinchingly at Journalism in the Midst of Terror

Photograph courtesy of IFC Films

Likely to be one of the finest documentaries you’ll see all year (and one likely to show up a great deal during awards season), City of Ghosts is the story of a group of Syrian-born activist journalists who lived in the once forward-thinking city of Raqqa, which was invaded and taken over by ISIS in 2014. Although none of these citizens were journalists before 2014, in an effort to expose the horrifying realities of life under ISIS rule (and undermine ISIS propaganda that painted a much sunnier version of life in Syria), these men and women formed a secret news-gathering group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.”

City of Ghosts is a film that legitimately hurts to watch at times. Director Matthew Heinemann has a remarkable amount of access to RBSS footage, as well as material he has collected of the various members gathering clandestinely captured cell phone video and turning it into news stories that run on more mainstream new outlets as a way of embarrassing and otherwise plaguing ISIS. Not surprisingly, ISIS doesn’t respond well to this and has put many of those who are the focus of the film on death lists, putting out a global call to hunt these people down to murder them (which does happen during the course of the film).

Many of the leaders of RBSS have been forced to leave Syria to hide in places like Turkey and Germany, places where they have been confronted with the greatest irony—nationalist groups that want to kick out all Muslims for fear of terrorism. No sooner do many of the leadership arrive in Berlin then they are forced to endure slurs at the hands of marching skinheads. It’s a chilling and heartbreaking scene that is made all the more so when you consider what these news-gathers are fighting against in their own way.

Heinemann not only shows us some of the horrifying footage RBSS has captured but he also gives us quieter and more celebratory scenes of the journalists settling into their new homes and feeling safe (albeit briefly) for the first time in months. Of course they know full well that their job is never done and that a phone call with a terrible connection from Syria (the struggle for a clear cell phone signal and decent internet is constant) will end the momentary respite. The film ends with a shot of one of the subject’s sitting silently in a chair, smoking a cigarette as if he needs it to breathe. He’s attempting to decompress, but he ends up trembling so hard he falls asleep/passes out. It’s rare you ever see the physical manifestation of a person’s anxiety leaving their body, but that’s exactly what is necessary after you see City of Ghosts, as powerful a profile on courage and the war on terror as you’ll ever see.

The film opens for its Chicago run July 21 at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Dinner & Docs @ The Davis, a newly launched film series by the people who put together the fantastic DOC10 Film Festival, will be hosting a special screening of City of Ghosts Thursday night (July 13) at the Davis Theater.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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