Matthew Heineman’s latest documentary, City of Ghosts, is a wide-eyed and jaw-dropping portrait of the on-going and utterly devastating battle against the Islamic State. The film, which premiered at Sundance to critical acclaim, takes a daring look at the Syrian struggle and reveals the reality of life in ISIS territory.
The film focuses on the citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, who, at increasingly great risk of execution, have been reporting on the anti-Assad movement since the Arab Spring of 2012.
Heineman is not averse to high stakes. For Cartel Land, the director examined the vigilante efforts to thwart organized crime at the Mexican-American border. At one point, finding himself caught in crossfire in the middle of the desert at night. It was this unflinching approach to storytelling that saw him receive the highly prestigious Courage Under Fire Award at the International Documentary Association’s Documentary Awards.
The Guardian gave City of Ghosts five stars. “It’s no exaggeration to say that when the histories of 21st-century Syria and citizen journalism are written, this documentary will be a key part of them,” they wrote. Adding, “Where his previous film was a journalistic masterclass in taking access to the extreme, City of Ghosts instead turns the camera on heroic journalists themselves. In doing so, Heineman may have made the definitive contemporary documentary about the tragedy of Syria, as well as an epoch-defining piece on modern media tactics.”
The Hollywood Reporter said the “heartbreaking factor made evident in the documentary is the destruction of a culture, a country, a network of friendships and the hollowing out of individual lives by the enforced diaspora. You can see it in the physical posture of most of the refugees, the way they speak, the somewhat forced bonhomie that you know will soon be followed by hollow talk and silences. Even if these survivors of the worst have reasons to be grateful in their exile, they seem like partial ghosts of their former selves.” Adding that, “Heineman offers up a double portrait of devastation, of a truly destroyed city and of partially decimated survivors, leaving the viewer with an empathetic sense of deep sorrow.”
Variety acknowledged the director’s ability to capture humanity in even the most bleak settings. “What City of Ghosts does best is to humanize those who’ve suffered most from the conflict in Syria, educating us through both outrage and compassion.”
Amazon Studios has acquired the worldwide rights to the documentary. The film will have a theatrical release later this year.