Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Syria’s citizen journalists in ‘City of Ghosts’ | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Syria’s citizen journalists in ‘City of Ghosts’

"City of Ghosts" will play Tuesday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings.

When their city was seized by ISIS, a brave group of citizen journalists in Syria began documenting the atrocities and brutal violence the group inflicted on the people of Raqqa.

Dubbing themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), the group used camera phones and social media to tell the world about the horrors of life in Raqqa.

The scorching new documentary "City of Ghosts" tells their story. The film plays this afternoon at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings.

Director Matthew Heineman, the Oscar-nominated documentarian behind "Cartel Land," filmed the members of the group working in Turkey and Germany — having fled Syria for their safety — where they coordinate with sources in Raqqa to post and publish the latest from their hometown.

"I would be killed instantly if I went to Raqqa and that's the whole reason why this group was formed in the first place," Heineman said in a recent phone interview from London, "because there's no information going in and no information going out."

Members of RBSS and their families have been murdered for doing this work. "City of Ghosts" would raise their risk of retribution. But, Heineman said, they went ahead with the film anyway because sharing the horrors out of Raqqa was so vital.

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"These are conversations we had from the very beginning," Heineman said. "Do you understand the ramifications of taking part in the film? Do you know what this might entail? And they all felt compelled to do it despite the risks, to come out from behind the veneer of social media, show their faces as moderate Muslim men fighting extremism."

The film features brutal footage from inside Raqqa, including public executions, scenes of severed heads posted on spikes and samples of the bloody, slickly produced propaganda that ISIS spreads on the internet. During the editing process, Heineman grappled with how much he could ask an audience to handle.

"The violence is really unfathomable," he said. "Imagine walking out into the streets of Aspen and seeing a bunch of heads on a fence in the town square. So I wanted people to understand the fear and horror that the citizens of Raqqa experience every day. At the same time, I didn't want people to run out of the theater because it was so gruesome. So it was a tightrope walk finding a balance."

"City of Ghosts" is a sort of sequel to "Cartel Land," which documented vigilantes battling Mexican drug cartels. Each is about citizens fighting evil in their communities. The weapons in "City of Ghosts," however, are pens and computers and cellphones — the tools of journalism rather than guns.

"I found in making 'Cartel Land' that I like and want to tell stories that are deeply personal, character-driven verite docs," Heineman said.

Heineman recalled that when he was traveling to screenings of "Cartel Land" two years ago, the civil war in Syria was growing worse by the day and he was reading deeply on the subject in search of a story to tell there. When he came across a feature by David Remnick in The New Yorker about RBSS, he jumped on it.

"I knew that this was my window into the story," he said. "I reached out to the guys and started filming about a week later."

Shortly after the film's release this fall, the U.S- led military coalition defeated ISIS in Raqqa and liberated the city from the terror group's grip. But the global battle against ISIS continues and the work of activists like RBSS will be more vital than ever in the days to come.

"One thing that became clear in making this film is that ISIS is an ideology and it can't be beaten with bombs or guns or weapons," Heineman said. "Therefore, the idea lives on. Yes, ISIS is gone from Raqqa but the ISIS ideology remains. That's why the work of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is so important, because they're trying to counter this narrative."

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

What: ‘City of Ghosts’ at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2 p.m.

How much: $20; $15 for Aspen Film members; free for members of the Academy and associated guilds

Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com

More info: Also playing at Academy Screenings on Tuesday are ‘Brad’s Status’ at 5 p.m. and ‘The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)’ at 8 p.m.

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