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City of Ghosts: Movie Review

The documentary City of Ghosts begins at a black-tie gala in New York City.  A group of Syrian men mingle with donors and have their pictures taken.  “Maybe a little smile?” a photographer asks.  But they are thinking about the struggles of their home city, where there is little smile about.  They are part of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a group of citizen-journalists who have documented the human-rights abuses of ISIS in the city of Raqqa, Syria.

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Many of the members of RBSS got their start documenting the rebellion against the Assad regime in 2012.  Then ISIS moved into the city in 2014 and claimed it as the capital of their new “caliphate.”  They continued covertly filming and posting images online.  “Videos smuggled out of the ISIS stronghold … are the only way to see what life is like under extremist rule.”  ISIS went to great lengths to track down these transmissions and offered bounties for RBSS members.  The documentary tracks the group’s leaders as they escaped to Turkey and then to Germany, where they continued their work, still under threat of assassination.

It is also sobering to see how ISIS uses “Hollywood techniques … with high production values” to create recruitment videos.  These videos promise a real-life Grand Theft Auto experience for would-be militants.  This provides a glimpse into the seductiveness of ISIS and how it was able to grow in size and power.

Their work has allowed the world to see the horrors of ISIS, but it has also taken its toll.  Many RBSS members, their family, and friends have been captured and murdered.  One member shudders uncontrollably while thinking of his lost comrades, but says: “We are sure that our words are stronger than their weapons.  Either we will win or they will kill all of us.”  City of Ghosts is a powerful tribute to this group, fighting for freedom with journalism.

On October 18th, it was announced that Raqqa had been seized from ISIS by the Syrian Democratic Forces.  However, the city and region are still torn by conflict and face many challenges.

City of Ghosts is available now on Amazon Prime Video.  Note that this film is Rated R for disturbing, violent content.