“These are the people history should be written about.” So says one journalist of his fellow citizen reporters, who dare to share information from inside Raqqa, the Syrian city currently being used as ISIS/ISIL headquarters.
In director Matthew Heineman’s latest documentary City of Ghosts (Cartel Land, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare), he tells the story of R.B.S.S., or Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a Syrian activist organization started in 2014 with the aim of secretly recording and sharing the true actions of ISIS within the city of Raqqa. Heineman primarily follows three men, Hamoud, Aziz, and Mohamad, founders and reporters for R.B.S.S. who continue their work even after they must flee.
Perhaps even more surprising than the atrocities committed by ISIS are the lengths these men are willing to go to expose them, despite their lives being in danger. Prior to ISIS’ occupation of their home city, they led ordinary lives— Aziz was was a student, Mohamed a high school math teacher, and Hamoud a techie loner obsessed with cameras. All three were middle-class, in good health, and not immediate targets. But it soon became clear to them that “ISIS [was] worse than other militant groups…unlike anything the world [had] seen before.”
Through voiceovers, interviews, and footage of flashbacks, the men explain what is was like when ISIS arrived, wielding black flags, chanting triumphantly, and ultimately easily filling the vacuum left in the wake of the Syrian Civil War. They shut down universities, schools, and hospitals, and began public executions of anyone who dared to voice opposition. Decapitated bodies were left on sidewalks, their heads displayed behind them on stakes. Family members disappeared and were never seen again, or worse yet, appeared in footage released by ISIS, visibly tortured and eventually murdered on camera. (Aziz lives with the knowledge that both his brother and father were kidnapped and murdered because of his work with R.B.S.S.) The quality of life plummeted; food was scarce, medical care non-existent, and freedom a memory.
The only way the rest of Syria—and the world—would know what was really happening in Raqqa was if someone dared to show them. And thus, R.B.S.S. was started, its members determined to post any truth they could photograph or record—ISIS propaganda posters, photographs of bodies, videos of children lined up with buckets, starving and waiting for food rations. When it became too dangerous in Syria, Aziz, Hamoud, and Mohamed fled to Turkey and eventually Germany, though they still fear for their lives daily and are often moved from safe house to safe house, aware that ISIS regularly posts their names, photos, and even pictures of their apartment doors, offering rewards to anyone who will kill them.
It’s especially interesting to witness just how much everyone depends on technology for their success. ISIS produces and films short promo trailers, packed with special effects and flashy actions sequences, to use as recruitment propaganda; R.B.S.S. reporters from inside Raqqa search hungrily for an internet connection strong enough to send their footage; Aziz and Mohamed agonize over the best time and place to post their latest news while avoiding detection. Phones and computer screens feature prominently throughout the film.
In some ways, it’s easy relate. I can’t think of the last time I was in a room for more than five minutes where there wasn’t a phone or laptop present. And not a day goes by that I don’t at some point complain about the speed or spottiness of a wireless connection, or endlessly (over)analyze the wording of a Facebook status. We make post after post of things we overtly or subconsciously want other people to see: Instagram photos, Snapchat videos, shared links, public comments, likes, retweets. But our obsession is one of vanity, or loneliness; the members of R.B.S.S. don’t post what they want other people to see, they post what they need other people to see. It’s sobering to imagine a world where our luxury, our “bad habit” of being “too connected” is literally a matter of life and death.
Heineman, who is also the film’s cinematographer, is an appropriately undetectable presence, though perhaps deceptively so. While some documentarians openly track their own self-discovery during the filmmaking process, or reveal an apparent agenda, his seems to be simple: Witness. Know what is happening; see it with your own eyes. He may pretend he’s only opening the curtains, but in truth, he chose what would appear on stage. And at times, he may show too much—he includes footage of men being shot in the head, and bodies being crucified in the streets. It poses an ethical question twice over: one, is it his to show? And two, is it right for people like me, perhaps in between errands and to-go cups of coffee, to sit safely in a dark theater and watch the precise moment that life leaves another human? I don’t know. Knowledge is power, that much is certain; it’s the belief that keeps the men of R.B.S.S. doing their dangerous work, and is ostensibly what inspires Heineman to tell the stories he does.
But knowledge is also responsibility, and Heineman gives us no answers to our helpless, “What now?” question. There’s no plug after the credits, no “you can send money here or supplies there” links, no informative “What Can You Do to Help?” sidebar. Afterall, this is art, not an NGO brochure. Heineman shows us these men, shows us their chain smoking, their embarrassed laughter at the scantily-clad women in German advertisements, their tears as they’re safely reunited with each other, their shaking hands as they look through photos of the people they’ve lost. He’s after an emotional response, not a political one, but it’s up to us if we’re going to let ourselves be affected or just informed. (In one of his only missteps, Heineman frames the film with footage of the group receiving a journalism award in New York, as if we require something Western to help us identify with these Syrian Others.)
As I was walking out of the film, feeling some mixture of sobered, uneasy, and thankful, the man next to me said “Well that was educational, but BORING.” It took all my self control not to retort “I’m sorry the truth doesn’t compel you.” But initial sassy comeback aside, the interaction broke my heart, because it’s a response I’m guilty of daily—one of apathy, one of cynicism, one of “I’m no longer being entertained.” At one point, Mohamed says “ISIS is not just a Syrian problem…it’s reached Europe and it’s reached America.” No doubt this will confirm the fear and anxiety many Americans are already feeling. But the point is, it’s not our fear that should compel us to care about Raqqa and the people of Syria, nor should it take graphic footage to incite our outrage, nor relatable anecdotes to arouse our empathy. We should care because they’re humans, period, and there’s nothing they need do to earn our compassion.
So I guess, for starters, that’s our “What now?” assignment: Let us never let our big or little lives exhaust us of our ability to feel compassion. Be that for Syrian refugees or the guy in the seat next to us who seems to be missing the point.