‘City of Ghosts’ Puts Human Face on the Syrian Conflict

ISIS and Syrian refugees are hot topics in the news, but few people in the Western world know the extent of the devastation the militant group has caused in that part of the world. In the documentary “City of Ghosts,” director Matthew Heineman tells the story of a group of men who refused to stand by while the extremists took over their hometown of Raqqa, Syria.

Realizing that the camera is more powerful than any other weapon, these men, who lived ordinary lives before the Arab Spring, trained to be journalists and utilize social media to show the world the horrors happening around them through Facebook and other websites. The group, aptly titled Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, brings to light human rights abuses such as public executions, the recruiting of children and other atrocities.

Heineman follow the men as they move from safe house to safe house with ISIS on the trail, never once doubting that their mission is worth it.

Everyone has heard of the pain ISIS has inflicted on innocent people, of the lives lost, and seen the aftermath photos of horrific bombings. But there’s nothing quite like the cell phone videos of public executions that RBSS uploads, which, along with images of people left to die on public streets in Raqqa, paint a grim picture of what the men describe as a once vibrant city.

There’s no end to ISIS’ vengeance, as RBSS cameraman Hamound learns after the terrorist group, unable to find him because he has fled to Turkey with many of the others, executes his father and sends him the video. Even Turkey proves to be unsafe for the men, as Naji, the journalist responsible for training those using their phones and laptops as weapons, is killed in broad daylight on a city street, forcing most of the others to seek asylum in Germany. In one of the more lighthearted scenes, a group of the men and one of their wives experience a bit of culture shock as they explore the European streets and find bars and colorful ads featuring-scantly clad women. But even in Germany, ISIS leaders call for members in the area to take the lives of the journalists, showing how far the reach of the group has spread.

While RBSS and others like them have made use of technology to spread their message, ISIS has done the same, recruiting experienced videographers and editors to create high-end snuff films. Almost as horrifying are clips of children who are taught to kill. In one video, a small boy gleefully beheads a teddy bear.

“City of Ghosts” succeeds in putting a human face on the situation in Syria, as sadly many in the west are unable to differentiate from moderate Muslims and extremists. In one scene, a group of protesters in Germany call for the end of immigration in the country. At the end of the day, Heineman and his subjects exude hope. Despite their circumstances, all they really want is to live peaceful lives with their families. This is what keeps them going when they are watching countless atrocities and losing sleep as they work tirelessly for their mission.

City of Ghosts” opens July 7 in New York, July 14 in select theaters.