Powerful ‘City of Ghosts’ profiles courageous underground journalism movement in Syria

IFC Films

A scene from Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts.”

“CITY OF GHOSTS” — 3½ stars — Hamoud, Hussam, Mohamad; R (disturbing violent content and some language); Broadway

“City of Ghosts” is not an easy film to watch. Matthew Heineman’s documentary on the ISIS occupation of the city of Raqqa is in alternate turns fascinating, heartbreaking, horrifying and inspiring.

Heineman’s mission is to profile Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of underground journalists working within what is considered the capital of ISIS influence. The film opens as some of RIBSS’s key members are receiving the International Press Freedom Award. In one shot, a red-carpet photographer tries to get one of the stoic journalists to smile. It’s supposed to be a moment of celebration, but as “City of Ghosts” unfolds, viewers see why even RIBSS’s triumphs feel bittersweet at best.

An early historical passage gives valuable context. Raqqa used to be a relatively happy community in Syria, rich in culture, even under the dictatorship of Suheil al-Hassan. But after the 2012 Arab Spring inspired a resistance movement, a sequence of events created a power vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State in 2014.

“City of Ghosts” follows a handful of underground journalists who came together to expose the harsh realities of life under ISIS occupation. A thin, heavy-bearded man named Aziz becomes the RIBSS spokesman because, according to his explanation, he has the best grasp of the English language. Mohamad was a high school math teacher who couldn’t stand…

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