“City Of Ghosts” a documentary by Matthew Heineman

“City Of Ghosts” – What would you do if you lost your Home

Today the city of Raqqa is a shadow of its former self. Once, the leading city of the Islamic Golden Age. Today’s reality is very different, ever since the city was claimed as the capital of the Islamic State (ISIS) back in 2014.

Award winning filmmaker, Matthew Heineman, shares with us a powerful documentary focuses on the story of a group of activists called “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS). They begin as regular citizens, proud of their city, in love with their home. Many, could not have imagined leaving or living anywhere else. But when ISIS seized control of their city, claimed to their home, what were they to do?

The activists risk their lives to send the outside world painful footage from inside their city. Their mission, to counter ISIS propaganda. Their goal, simply to return to home.

The documentary – in Arabic, with subtitles – follows four of the group’s leading members over the course of a year, starting from late 2015, and includes material recorded covertly in the city by RBSS and other footage from the Syrian revolution.


What would you do?

The film takes us on a very personal journey. At its core, it strips away labels that divide us and on a human level asks:  What do you do when you have a home you love; and it is taken from you?

It is a very Third Culture question, “What is Home?” Is it a geographical place? If so, then it can be taken away from you. If you leave, would you not yearn to go back?

Moreover, is it the people in your lives that make up your idea of “Home”. What if they are threatened? What if you had to leave them behind? Even if you could bring some people with you, would it be the same? What if loved ones died to protect your Home and its ideals? How would that affect you? How would that impact your life decisions?

These are some of the questions that may race through your mind as you witness these activists combat the ideology of ISIS. They faced terror and atrocities, that are hard to watch, let alone attempt to empathise with them. All members of the group are in a constant state of fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. They face the guilt of being the ones that left, and many of the activists ask frequently “why me, why not someone else”.


Cameras become weapons

What can be found remarkable is how these activists chose to combat ISIS. Not with weapons, but with words, with information, with truth. They explain in the documentary how “Isis worked on its media”, warping reality with fantasy and ideology. They realised that ISIS’s strength was attracting more recruits to their “paradise”. If the activists can show reality, then ISIS would have no ground on which to stand on.

So cameras become weapons for the truth.

They fight for awareness. As do the activists inside the city. These are not professional journalists. They are real people, filming on their phones, filming with whatever they can, to try to transmit their message of truth to the outside world. Though they are killed, though their loved ones are threatened, tortured and killed, often in public displays. Still they fight for their beliefs. They fight for their home.




The group’s activists are forced to flee Raqqa. But soon they find that the influence of ISIS is worldwide and that they are in fact, not safe anywhere. In Europe, they attempt to wage their propaganda war. But they find that Europe may also be a somewhat hostile environment. Many Europeans have now begun protesting “refugees”. They too, now in fear that their “home” is being taken away from them. The irony is, that these activists know that feeling well, for the vast majority of them, they just want to go home.

The documentary does good work in displaying the Dilema that these activists face. It is a matter of perspective. Many Europeans are now in fear that their “home” is being taken away from them. The irony is, that these activists know that feeling well, for the vast majority of them, they just want to go home.

One cannot help but think, that more awareness of the situation might change perspectives. That more education might create sympathy for their plight.

One of the activists says:

“I don’t care if it’s beautiful or not…I just want a home I can stay in”

Where can they go? Who’s responsibility are they? As refugees they are often hated, and they must battle their pride and control their fear as they are often threatened and insulted.

But if you take away the idea of geography; If they are just people who have lost their home, then who is going to help them? What if you were in their position? At what point does it become your problem, our problem? At what point does it become humanities problem?


What can be done?

As the activists discuss: Isis is an idea and it will continue even if the group ends. Their solution is to continue the fight, and to fight harder.

They believe the only way to defeat extremism, is through education.

They argue that people just want Freedom and Safety.

When people don’t have Freedom or Safety they are often seduced by extremist groups that offer this. The activists solution to fighting extremism, to continue their fight for truth. They believe this war cannot be won by guns or bombs. One group will simply replace another extremist group. The only solution is through education, to help people differentiate for themselves what is truth and reality, and what is propaganda.

The final message from the activists in the documentary are powerful but chilling. They are humans, “no different from you”:

  “We love our home – have dreams of raising a family”

Having lost their home, and for many of them their families. RBBS has become their second family. Their cause, their lives: 

“our words stronger than our weapons and their arms – we will win or they will kill all of us”

Sundance Hong Kong

The movie has been selected by Sundance Hong Kong and is currently screening. The movie’s screening schedule can be found here.


photos courtesy of:  http://www.cityofghosts.com/



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