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City of Ghosts (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"Shining a light on those shining a light."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: A solid documentary centered on the founders of the blog "Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently", "City of Ghosts" gives a brief introduction to the city in question, allows the citizen journalists to tell their own story, and, while allowing the subjects to be even-tempered, friendly people, never lets up is disdain for Daesh. It will not fully educate one on the causes and effects of what is happening in Syria, but it presents a human face to a crisis that can often seem abstract from the other side of the world.

Raqqa, the subjects point out, is not a large city, which is why, when the group known in the West as ISIS declared a caliphate with Raqqa as the capital in June of 2014, it didn't get a lot of the sort of on-site news coverage that helps shape the sense of an urgent crisis (note that "ISIS" is often called "Daesh" by Arabic speakers in opposition to the organization, as this Arabic acronym meaning "one who tramples"). To bridge the gap, a number of locals started a blog anonymously documenting what was happening, which expanded as more people began contributing video. The film introduces the viewers to several, most notably three of the founders: Aziz, a college student who was not initially of an activist bent; Mohammed, a high school teacher who becomes a reporter; and Hamoud, an introvert whose work as a cameraman gives him a taste for danger. As they become wanted men, they eventually flee across the border to Turkey, and will have to go farther to escape their foes' reach.

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman, who produces, shoots, and edits on top of serving as director, understands the perils of perspective that his sort of movie can face, a kind of survivorship bias that comes of talking to those who escaped a bad situation to be honored. He attempt to head it off early, revealing the blog's name after a photographer at an award ceremony asks the correspondents to smile for a photograph, a contrast which both pointedly indicates that, even if these guys are okay, their home is still being "slaughtered", and maybe gets audiences thinking about how much impact these stories make on them. It's one of the few times where the way he presents information is as much the point as simply putting things in front of the audience, but it's effective.

Most of the time, Heineman and the rest try to simply show the group at work. The video-intense nature of the blog allow him to intertwine the stories of the citizen journalists with the stories that they cover, so that even when some have relocated to Germany, the audience still gets a first-person perspective on Raqqa from those on the ground. On top of that, the two perspectives are inevitably intertwined, as friends and colleagues are captured and imperiled. Heineman manages that sort of thing well, clearly showing the tension in those situations but not staging them like they are thriller material. There's a more pointedly in-between feel to scenes of them editing the site; as Henieman shows how a blog like this one can be an odd combination of the traditional newsroom and start-up business in both its energy and operation.

Heineman does well to follow paths that are significant but don't necessarily have to be central to this story just far enough, especially in terms of how, over the last few years, Daesh has increased the production values of its propaganda, while opponents have taken to producing magazines with the same cover as Daesh's official publication. There's interesting material on how, by going into exile, the founders sometimes seem to feel like they are retaining a connection to their struggle more than to the homeland where the war is taking place, although it mostly stays unspoken. That course of action doesn't quite work so well when approaching their decision to relinquish their anonymity so that they can speak to the greater world more directly - the audience never gets a sense of them having been hidden or especially guarded around the camera.

That's another risk in making this sort of documentary: The fly-on-the-wall approach done well can sometimes obscure that flies on the wall can be genuinely dangerous is these situations. Aside from that, though, "City of Ghosts" is an often engrossing look at the twin tales of the Daesh occupation and the process of getting the word out, and how they fit together.

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originally posted: 06/08/17 03:20:25
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  07-Jul-2017 (R)



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