City of Ghosts
by director Matthew Heineman
I was inspired to make City of Ghosts in late 2015 after reading an article about Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of citizen activists who came together to document the atrocities that ISIS was committing in their hometown of Raqqa—currently dubbed the capital of the Islamic State. I was deeply humbled by their fight to expose the truth, despite extraordinary danger and personal costs, and I knew their story could provide an intimate, character driven window into life under ISIS.
I made contact with members of RBSS, attempted to gain their trust, and soon began filming with them. I knew almost immediately that I wanted the spine of the story to be deeply personal vérité footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members of their group by ISIS. I followed them in Turkey and then eventually to Europe as ISIS continued to threaten them. Even while many members were in exile and facing death threats, the group continued to sneak footage out of Raqqa to document the human rights abuses of ISIS.
Since ISIS took over their city in 2013, journalists have been unable to enter the region, allowing the terrorist group to control the narrative of what is happening inside the city with its slick propaganda videos. So, RBSS' footage—including some that has never been released—provides a unique, up-close and visceral window into daily life in Raqqa.
The contrast of ISIS’ videos, which proclaim a fully-functioning and prosperous state, with those of RBSS, which capture the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking. In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not weapons.
As I shot the film, City of Ghosts became much more than the chronicles of RBSS versus ISIS though. The story twisted and turned into one that also touches on the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood, rising nationalism in Europe, and how one deals with cumulative effects of trauma.
For me, City of Ghosts is a testament to the bravery of the men and women of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently who have risked everything in the pursuit of the truth and in the pursuit of exposing evil. I hope that this film can provide a megaphone to the importance of citizen journalists fighting for and exposing the truth in dark corners of the world and also humanize the experience of immigrants who have been forced to flee their homeland.