City of Ghosts




The director of Cartel Land wins the confidence of a group of Syrian activists bent on 

unmasking the propaganda of the so-called Islamic State.


City of Ghosts


The two giants of contemporary non-fiction cinema come together to produce one of the scariest documentaries you are likely to see. The executive producer is the documentarian Alex Gibney, he who brought us Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, among many articulate and thought-provoking titles. And the director is Matthew Heineman, whose Cartel Land (2015) was as harrowing as it was stunning to look at. Having gained the confidence of both masked cartel members and the Mexican villagers whose lives they had destroyed, Heineman now goes undercover with the foot soldiers of the so-called activist movement Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). However, these heroes of the resistance use their smart phones and their words to combat the barbaric sword of Isis.


Heineman sets up his film with his customary eye for a breath-taking image, defying the hand-held cliché of the documentary norm. However, as much of the footage featured in the film was shot clandestinely on mobile phones, Heineman is unable to sustain his artistic flair. Which is probably just as well, as the fleeting video images of Isis’s brutality at the beginning of the film is quite enough for public consumption. To show on the big screen what the terrorists routinely posted on the Internet would be merely to further their cause.


What Heineman does do, however, is still show us scenes we thought we’d never see – albeit in the calm intimacy of a group of men determined to do the right thing. Their mission: to dismantle the propaganda of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and expose the terrorists’ real level of barbarity. With Isis unable to track down their media critics – who have moved to a safe house in Turkey – they take an alternative route to punish the members of RBSS. And so we watch as one activist, Hamoud, witnesses the execution of his own father posted on the Internet. We are spared the act itself, although the real drama playing across the face of the victim’s son is more than enough.


Heineman pulls of an effective balance between the fraternal camaraderie of his subjects and the violent hysteria of the video footage. And the quieter scenes register more strongly, perhaps because we are all too familiar with the latter from so much television coverage. Hunched over their laptops, the activists discuss their various shortcomings as journalists, one admitting to his abject inadequacy with grammar. But it’s the content, not the form, that made these Syrian martyrs the heroes of their Fatherland and we are privileged to spend time with them.




Featuring  Aziz, Hamoud, Hussam, Mohamad.


Dir Matthew Heineman, Pro Matthew Heineman, Ex Pro Alex Gibney and Molly Thompson, Ph Matthew Heineman, Ed Matthew Hamachek, Matthew Heineman and Pax Wassermann, Music Jackson Greenberg and H. Scott Salinas.


Our Time Projects/Jigsaw Productions-Dogwoof Pictures.

91 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 21 July 2017. Cert. 18.