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'City of Ghosts' Chronicles Syrian Activists Battling ISIS with Journalism

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman's new movie about the citizen journalist group "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" puts human faces to the stories of the displaced.
Photo courtesy of Studios / A&E IndieFilms / IFC Films.

Harrowing documentaries are a staple of art house cinemas and streaming services these days, and yet no other harrowing documentary in recent memory has captured the tragic urgency of the battle against ISIS as filmmaker Matthew Heineman's City of Ghosts.

The film, which hits theaters on July 7 before hitting Amazon later this year, tracks the struggle of the human rights group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a collective of unbelievably brave Syrian citizen journalists who clandestinely smuggle images out of their ISIS-controlled home city by any means necessary. Risking their own lives as well as their loved ones, the film is a brutally intimate look at the power of humanity in the face of the inhumane.


VICE Impact spoke to Heineman, whose previous film Cartel Land was nominated for an Academy Award, about propaganda, trust, and the role of the documentary filmmaker.

VICE Impact: What drew you to want to tell the story of RBSS?

Matthew Heineman: I was traveling around with Cartel Land, my last film, and ISIS was becoming front page news. I just started reading and tried to figure out if there's a film to be made. I came across this article about RBSS by David Remnick in The New Yorker, and I thought this was my in as a story. I reached out to a few of the RBSS guys to ask if we could meet up, and two of them happened to be in exile relatively near where I was. We met up, we talked, and about a week later I started filming.

Were the RBSS correspondents initially receptive to the idea of putting what they were doing on film? Especially considering they must have been in hiding at the time.

They wanted to come out from the veneer of social media, and no longer just be avatars. To show their faces, to show that they're moderate Muslim men from Raqqa who are fighting this perversion of their religion. And so, despite the potential risks of doing it, they thought it was important to do so.

During those early talks, how did you gain their trust to want to tell this intimate, volatile, ongoing story?

Trust doesn't happen in one conversation, trust happens in weeks and weeks, and months and months of relationship building. That's what happened with this group — I spent a lot of time with guys like [RBSS co-founder] Aziz Alhamza and I became part of the fabric of their daily lives. So, the more and more that happened, the more intimate I was able to get with them.


A big part of the trust factor was a natural transparency. From the very beginning, I was transparent with what I was trying to do to help tell their story. I didn't really have an agenda, I didn't have any script I was following, I didn't have any goal in mind.

RBSS co-founder Aziz in a scene from Matthew Heineman's 'City of Ghosts'. (Photo courtesy of Studios / A&E IndieFilms / IFC Films)

What was that shooting process like embedding yourself with them on a day-to-day basis in places like safe houses in Turkey or Germany?

It was definitely the hardest film I've ever made. It was hard to communicate; it was hard to figure out how, when, and where to film; how to figure out how to do so safely, it was hard to portray what really amounted to people being on the run.

The process was an ever-evolving set of parameters and rules in modes of communication and filming. We were very conscientious of the sensitive details surrounding what we filmed, and we always communicating through encrypted means, never putting any footage online, and other things I can't talk about. So, we were extraordinarily careful every step along the way, to try to do whatever we could to protect our subjects.

RBSS correspondent Hamoud in a scene from Matthew Heineman's 'City of Ghosts'. (Photo courtesy Studios / A&E IndieFilms / IFC Films)

Do you think it's imperative for viewers to see issues like the refugee crisis and ISIS up close and on such a personal level to want to change minds or maybe even their understanding of the issues?

So often these large hotbed issues -- Syria, ISIS, immigration -- are relegated to headlines, stats, or photos. The humanity of it is not really shown. I feel like it's my duty and my job as a documentary filmmaker to provide a human face to these stories to allow audiences to go on a visceral, emotional journey, with them. And hopefully, in doing so with Syrian refugees, there's a tiny bit more empathy.

Is your hope that viewers who see the movie try to actively become involved with these issues to try to make some sort of impact?

I really hope that the film provides a window into this world that people don't otherwise get to experience, and that it creates a dialogue around these issues. To some degree, the film is an homage to journalism, and to citizen journalists who are shedding light on dark corners of the world, especially in an age where the truth seems to be malleable, I think it's important to highlight the work of people who are exposing the truth and fighting against evil and

This is not the type of film where we're trying to approach a piece of legislation or affect public policy in a certain way. We're providing the humanity that so often is lost, and so, if you believe in the work of RBSS, I hope you can support them and citizen journalists around the world who are telling very important stories. Obviously, part of what this story is about this war of information and this war of ideas. War is being waged not with guns and bombs, it's being waged on the internet through social media. So, impart, speak out, say something.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.