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In ‘City of Ghosts,’ citizen journalists risk their lives to expose the atrocities of ISIS

A scene from Matthew Heineman’s
A scene from Matthew Heineman’s "City of Ghosts."
Amazon Studios / A&E IndieFilms / IFC Films

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When Matthew Heineman was traveling the world with his last film, “Cartel Land,” the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, was quickly becoming front page news.

He came across an article in The New Yorker by David Remnick about “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) — a group of friends who banded together to expose the atrocities committed by ISIS in Raqqa, their hometown in Syria and the capital of the Islamic State.

“Immediately upon reading that, I knew that this was my way into the story,” Heineman said.

Heineman reached out to a mutual organization that also was familiar with RBSS, the Committee to Protect Journalists. He met with some of the members of RBSS in Washington D.C., including co-founder Abdul-Aziz Alhamza.

Heineman started filming a little over a week later.

When Heineman and Alhamza stopped by The Frame, they spoke about the work of RBSS and how ISIS' main weapon is the spread of ideas through propaganda, mainly through social media and highly produced videos:

ALHAMZA: ISIS is not a group organization, it's like an idea and they wanted to spread their idea everywhere. So the best and easiest [way] to do it is through social media. Nowadays, … most of the people have Facebook, Twitter, social media accounts … In Iraq, Al-Qaeda [was] doing their videos with a mobile phone, with bad quality videos. Later on, they discovered that the media work is one of the important things.

Alhamza says that through social media, ISIS is able to not only tell its story, but also recruit people for their cause. The effects are clear in Raqqa, where thousands of people from all over the world have traveled to join ISIS.

ALHAMZA: Right now, in Raqqa, there are thousands of people from 84 countries. They went and joined ISIS and were recruited through the social media … We've seen ISIS in Europe. We've seen ISIS in the U.S., in Africa, in Asia. So it was like a mantle to spread their messages. And right now, everyone's talking about ISIS. Everyone knows ISIS. All that happened through the social media.

Heineman's original plan included documenting the war of ideas that was taking place. But the direction of the film ultimately changed over the course of filming:

HEINEMAN: When I started this film, I was really fascinated by this ... sort of propaganda war, this media war, this war of ideas between RBSS on one hand and ISIS on the other. And I knew that I wanted the through-line of the film to be this exodus away from Syria into Turkey and ultimately into Europe.

What I didn't know is what the film would ultimately become, which is much more than that to me. It became a story of almost an immigrant story. It became a story of finding oneself in a new land and what that means, what that entails. It became a story of rising nationalism in Europe. It became a story of trauma and the cumulative effects of trauma that we see quite vividly in the end of the film.

Alhamza and members of RBSS put their lives at risk as citizen journalists aiming to tell the truth about ISIS. A tense moment in the film occurs after Alhamza receives a death threat from ISIS and meets with the police about protection. Heineman and and Alhamza discuss the important moment:

HEINEMAN: It was like a 60-minute take where I didn't cut. It was just Aziz and I in the room. As a human being, all I wanted to do was give him a hug. But as a filmmaker, my job was to capture this moment. These guys ... they've been through so much. And there's a stoicism with which they carry themselves. And so, one of my goals was to try to at least crack beneath that to see whether this was having an effect on him.

ALHAMZA: Especially at that moment, I was talking about my colleagues, my friends, so I started to see them in my mind – to see my brother, my colleagues … family members, friends. [I could] remember what happened, what is happening to me that moment, so I couldn't handle all the things at the same time. I just blew up.

Despite the risks, Alhamza says being a part of the film was a way to do his job — to educate people about what’s really going on in Syria and Raqqa. It was also a way to show the efforts of citizen journalists like RBSS in exposing the truth:

ALHAMZA: All of us, our ages are between 18-to-28, none of us studied any journalism, any media, and we were able to make this thing, [to] reach out [to the] international community. We hope with this movie we will be able to educate many people about what's going on, change their mind or their perspective about Syria, about Raqqa people, and trying to push their governments to stop these crisis, these conflicts in Syria.

From its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival to its present theatrical release, Heineman says the film has always felt relevant:

HEINEMAN: It doesn't feel like the film is becoming any less relevant. When the film premiered at Sundance ... the Muslim Ban [was in the news]. Our last screening there was the day after the Muslim Ban. It was extraordinarily emotional to be on the stage with these guys. If the festival was a week later they wouldn't have been there. As we're sitting here right now, there's probably a bomb being dropped on Raqqa. There are bullets being fired, there are people being killed in what most likely will be a months-long battle to regain the city of Raqqa from ISIS.

As Aziz has taught me — as members of the group have taught me, as we see in the film — dropping bombs on ISIS is not going to fix this problem. It's really a war of ideas.

To hear John Horn's conversation with Matthew Heineman and Abdul-Aziz Alhamza, click on the player above.

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