With the staggering complexity of conflict currently confronting the world, it can be far too easy to disassociate and dehumanize the suffering taking place at the individual level. In City of Ghosts, documentarian Matthew Heinemann has probably gone about as far as anyone can toward crafting an empathetic connection with the Syrian people whose lives are so far removed from the average American experience that they can be more comprehensibly relegated to statistics than to human stories — and as such, he’s accomplished a sociological and geopolitical feat of tremendous import.
The film follows the civilian journalists of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, an online news outlet that effectively smuggles content out of the capital city of ISIS purported caliphate. Much of the running time is spent with the website’s founders and operators functioning in exile, first in Turkey and then in Germany, as they move between safe houses, avoiding the persistent threat of death at the hands of the extremists their work exposes. The danger is palpable, and its impact on the film’s subjects is real. Early in the film, a callous photographer chastises the RBSS team for refusing to smile during an awards ceremony photo op in New York, oblivious to the fact that these men have very little to smile about — they come from a world in which one of their own repeatedly watches a video of his father’s execution to bolster his resolve, after all.
Ghosts aptly dissects the growing media war waged by ISIS, with its increasingly sophisticated film production on full display — it’s particularly gruesome footage, and Heinemann doesn’t shy away from using it to full effect. But while the film is primarily focused on the battle of ideas taking place on the internet, it also foregrounds the growing anti-immigrant sentiment taking root in Europe, as the RBSS refugees narrowly escape assassination in Turkey only to be confronted by militaristic right-wing nationalists in Berlin.
This central paradox — that the people forced to flee their homeland for nobly fighting against the perversion and exploitation of their religion are then confronted with the ignorance and intolerance of Islamophobia — is part of what makes Ghosts such a frustratingly bleak film. And it’s hard to imagine that this story could be told in any other way, as the ongoing struggle in Syria shows no signs of abating. But the story isn’t quite hopeless, as the very fact that RBSS exists, and a dedicated group of Syrian civilians persists in efforts to combat incomprehensible violence by waging a war of ideas rather than taking up arms, suggests that all is not yet lost. Ghosts may not be a fun watch, but it is a critically important one. Arabic, German and English with English subtitles. Rated R for disturbing violent content, and for some language. Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.