Movie Review: Gutsy Citizen Journalists Document ISIS Crimes in “City of Ghosts”


In the “civilized” West, we carp at politicians, take to social media and — if we have the time — pick up a placard and politely march in protest if our government isn’t heeding “the will of the people.”

And our still-free press reports it.

We cannot even begin to fathom the courage it takes to do any of the above in places where freedom is but a dream, where inhumanly pitiless fanatics will kill you on the mere suspicion that you’d raise a voice or document their murders and other crimes.

“City of Ghosts” is about young men with the guts to report the unreportable, the “rape” and murderous ISIS occupation and destruction of Raqqa, Syria.

The collective known as RBSS, “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” are students, a math teacher, an older guy known as “uncle,” all willing to hide a camera, capture murders and round-ups of random “suspects,” children kidnapped to serve The Islamic State in the Levant, taught to kill by taking a knife to teddy bears. These intrepid reporters  then write eye-witness accounts, upload their video to the web, where TV networks from Al Jazeera to ABC broadcast them and sing their praises for documenting the horrors of the aptly-named Islamo-fascism at its ugliest.

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”) follows Aziz, Mohamad, Hamoud and others as they face death, at home and even after fleeing to exile in Turkey or Germany.

They vary in age, but the youngest of them admit “Danger has a special taste.”

Collectively, they resolve to “Turn the spotlight” on their beleaguered city, one just remote enough to be chosen as “capital” of the new “Islamic State.” They critique ISIS recruiting videos (which grow in sophistication), ridicule ISIS stumbles and defeats and “tell the world the truth” about conditions in their town.

Cries from Syria - Still 1

“We punched a hole in the darkness,” they declare, and as the film is framed within a ceremony where their efforts are honored by the world’s journalists as the most significant reporting going on right now, you’d have to agree.

Heineman and the RBSS watch the horrors that ISIS itself documents as propaganda, often stunned by the recognition that some of those being executed are neighbors they know, or worse, family who are being killed because ISIS knows who RBSS is and is targeting the reporters and their families.

They are middle class college kids (and a math teacher, and other educated middle class colleagues) who self-funded their efforts, slipping from safe house to safe house, furtively photographing — often with just cell-phones — writing and uploading their stories, hunted all the time by the fanatics in black.

The RBSS believe that “whoever holds the camera is stronger” than those with AK-47s, but that’s a hard sell as the film forces us the see mass executions, brutal roundups and posted online death threats.

As ISIS inspired attacks range from Paris to Orlando, the RBSS reporters see their work gain attention as a world that has “ignored” their city finally awakens to the monstrous danger.

It takes nothing away from Heineman’s movie knowing that the battle to re-take Raqqa is entering its last stages, with the organized ISIS of territorial holdings and mass enslavements and genocide finally on the ropes. Will any of the devout Muslim RBSS members in exile leave the comfort and culture-shocking “freedoms” of Berlin, London or New York and “go home” when that happens? Probably not important either.

The evil ISIS “idea” is still out there, attracting the disenfranchised, promising power and revenge.  And one can only hope there’s a press as free and as brave as these folks still around to warn us about it.


MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and for some language
Credits: Directed by  Matthew Heineman. An Amazon Studios/IFC release.
Running time:1:32


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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