Sheffield Doc/Fest Review: City of Ghosts

There have been many documentaries made about the heroism and dedication of war correspondence and conflict photographers. However, with the changing face of news journalism and in the digital age, we’ve started to see the rise of citizen journalism. This first came to the fore during the ‘Arab Spring’, with Tunisians and Egyptians using mobile phones and social media to circumvent censorship. With budgetary cuts to traditional news outlets, we’re coming to rely more and more on this style of reportage.

Matthew Heineman, the director of the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, turns his gaze to Syria in his new documentary City of Ghosts. More specifically, Raqqa, the self-designated capital of the Islamic State. After daesh moved in, all communications with the outside world were cut, apart from their own propaganda. In response to this, a group of activists came together determined to show the outside world what was really going on in their home town. They call themselves Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

City of Ghosts focusses on these activists. Half the group operate in Raqqa, sending information out to the others who are based in Turkey or Germany. They then ensure this is spread across social media and news sites. With limited communications within the city and an increasingly strident campaign by daesh to root them out, this can be sporadic and deadly. They all live under the shadow of death, but are determined to continue in order to highlight the plight of civilians and the barbaric actions of ISIS.

Painting the picture of truly remarkable and heroic network brought together by a common cause, City of Ghosts is a fantastic piece of documentary film-making. It’s depressing that many Syrians who have faced tragedy and shown bravery beyond our comprehension can often receive such a negative reception when they flee to Europe. City of Ghosts puts the record straight and should be mandatory viewing.

City of Ghosts is in UK cinemas from July 21.

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