Documentary “City of Ghosts” chronicles lives of Syrian citizen journalists

From documenting to documented, Syrian citizen journalists of the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) have their own story told in “City of Ghosts.”

Before the emergence of the Islamic State and protests against the Assad regime, 25-year-old Abdalaziz Alhamza was just a college student learning about biochemistry and hanging out with his friends. As the Syrian civil war escalated and ISIS worked to establish a caliphate, Hamza gravitated towards an awareness not only of politics, but the actions taking place in his home city of Raqqa. He then joined RBSS to report from within the city that became an ISIS stronghold.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s documentary “City of Ghosts” follows some of the members themselves. The documentary, which will hit theaters on July 14, follows the lives of several RBSS members that sought refuge in Turkey and Germany. They continued to coordinate with Raqqa-based RBSS members to write articles and post content online.  

“I think the film is many things for me, but part of it is an homage to journalism,” Heineman said.

“We knew this movie was going to be a good tool to share our story,” Alhamza said.

Fake news may be a hot debate topic in America surrounding the 2016 Presidential election, but false stories have been a long-time issue for Raqqa citizens.  

“Right now, we’re living in a fake news world,” said Alhamza, who serves as the group’s main spokesperson.

Since 2014, the group has worked to document happenings and living conditions in the city of Raqqa, which serves as an Islamic State stronghold in order to counter their propaganda.

Alhamza feels that documentation in Raqqa is important due to the fact that ISIS has harnessed the power of multimedia productions and social media to disperse propaganda. Since ISIS’ establishment of a caliphate, RBSS has been the source of news emerging from the city, with news organizations, such as CNN and BBC, citing RBSS as a source or using their footage.

In recent years, the group’s authenticity has become recognized. In November  2015, Alhamza,dressed in a suit with a Syrian flag draped over his shoulders, accepted an International Press Freedom award on stage in New York City. The award was presented by the Committee to Protect Journalists. It is one of the scenes that opens Heineman’s documentary. By March 2016, Alhamza and other members attended the International Journalism Festival in Italy, where Hamza approached Twitter personnel about verifying RBSS’ twitter account with a little blue checkmark.

Due to the fact that “City of Ghosts” also incorporates footage provided by RBSS, some of the imagery on screen contains violence, such as townspeople being shot in the street or hung in public squares. There are also a few scenes with footage from videos disseminated by ISIS itself, such as their highly stylized execution videos which use artistic camera angles, lighting, and special effects.

Heineman didn’t want to shy away from the realities that the citizens experience day-to-day.

“I felt it was necessary to show that, but also to show the work that they’re [RBSS] doing to dispel the myth that the Islamic State is a safe haven for Muslims, that it is a peaceful place, and I don’t think a lot of people know the way these videos are produced,” Heineman said. “It rivals Hollywood movies, and it does so in a way that actually dehumanizes.”

In “City of Ghosts,” Heineman filmed a scene of another RBSS member named Hamoud Almousa as he watched an execution video of his father. Though some footage of the video was shown, Heineman focused on Almousa’s reactions.

Abdulaziz Alhamza, of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, met with 8 News the day before a “City of Ghosts” screening in Washington, D.C.

Some members of RBSS have already been killed by ISIS. Threats have been made against the living members and actions have been taken against some of their family.

Another scene shows Almousa attempting to calm himself after looking at photographs he keeps of the friends and family he has lost.

In fact, Alhamza  refers to RBSS as his second family, as the members share a strong bond.

But the documentary isn’t all gloom, with humorous footage of members reacting to and cracking jokes about the differences in  culture as they arrived in Germany. Another scene shows that Hamoud has a son and named him after his late father.

Heineman  feels that the issues in Syria are often relegated to headlines and statistics, which he says are “important things,” but that his goal was to put human faces front and center. He hopes that people who see the film will have more empathy for the struggle of RBSS and the people of Syria.

“We hope with this documentary that people can urge their governments to help stop the war in Syria,” Alhamza said. “We’re trying our best to do what we can do to get our message out about the suffering of our citizens, our friends and our families.”