City of Ghosts
Matthew Heineman (USA; 2017)
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 26 July 2017; ticket:£9.45
yes but who are the ghosts?
Heineman’s film is about the group of Raqaa citizens who after IS steamed into Raqqa set themselves to oppose the invaders and called themselves: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.
The IS slaughter in Raqqa is silent because IS carried through a policy of cutting off Raqqa from the outside world so that no word, or at least a few words as possible about what was happening there could reach the ears of the world.
City of Ghosts gives a coherent background to the IS entry and take over of the city. We are shown the initial protests and riots against Assad’s regimen, leading to a revolution and uprising against that corrupt regime that successfully expelled it from the city. Cue picture: the triumphant entry of IS into Raqqa and the institution of the IS regime, heralded by their ideological proclamations that it marked the beginnings of a new era in the history of the world: the age of the second caliphate.
This we see. What we don’t see is what happened in that interval of time between the expulsion of Assad and the entrance of IS. It is not addressed. It is glossed over. But there are some questions that might be raised. Did eminent or influential factions inside Raqqa invite the IS investment of the town? Or did IS just turn up and walk in, more or less unannounced? Did anyone in Raqqa understand the implications of IS investment of their city? These are ghost questions and they haunt Heienman’s movie as much as any ghosts that he intends to reference in his title.
We see, though perhaps a little incoherently, the consequences of IS cleansing and purifying Raqqa with the execution of those judged to either have resisted IS or not to have met the new standards of respect and behaviour now required in a city privileged to be the capital of final perfect expression of Islam.
Witnessing the turn of events, the occupation of Raqqa by a homicidal regime using systematic intimidation and summary execution to maintain their rule, a small group of mostly young politically naïve men become active resisters. Trained up in journalistic techniques by Naji, one of their number (later assasinated in Turkey by IS), they call themselves: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). Their objective was to tell the world what was happening in the city; and also using graffiti posters small zines let the occupying killers know that there is opposition.
It seems at first their opposition was although dangerous, relatively easy and reasonably successful. They were able to carry through many of their objectives. Of course to be caught would entail an inevitable sentence of torture and death by beheading. But as IS’s occupation tightened their resistance and getting the stories out of Raqqa became more difficult. Most of the original band as they were unmasked managed to escape. RBSS split into two groups: émigrés and internees, the latter a highly clandestine group probably organised either in very small cells or even as individuals. The émigrés, mostly based in Turkey and Germany were tasked with publicising the situation inside Raqqa to the media and on the web. The inside story of Raqqa was provided with ever greater difficulty by the small group of informants left behind in the city.
The émigrés are subject to severe personal pressures: depression and stress. Moving from safe house to house across Europe they face the daily threat of assassination by Isis. But also they have to live with their own absence from the city, the cumulative death of friends and family, both from IS and allied air strikes. They also have to deal with their own feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Both the actual (the threats by IS to kill them) and psychological difficulties the group face are recorded by Heineman. Their bravery, their resourcefulness, their resolve their determination all documented in Heineman’s film. And their courage is honoured.
The problem with City of Ghosts is that it has an empty centre. We see at the beginning of the film, the uprising against the Assad regime. We understand something about these initial forces set in play, even though as I intimated above there are unasked questions about IS ‘s take over of Raqqa. But from the moment that IS take over Raqqa, we understand very little. The movie is suddenly decontextualized , full of ghost entities.
We have the provocation of IS’s legitimation of murder and summary execution and the consequent determination by a small group to fight IS by proclamation of the truth about what was going on. But Heineman is unable to address the issue of IS themselves. The thread of the movie’s aetiology is exclusively tied to the indistinct film of the porn of the IS summary executions. Pertinent questions are not even addressed: who constituted IS, who were they, what were they doing, and how successful were they in carrying through their various social educational administrative programmes?
It seems strange that in Heineman’s film there is no indication of who IS were? From where were the fighters, judges, bureaucrats of Isis drawn? Were they mostly known citizens of Raqqa who were happy to buy their privileged survival with quisling service to the warped practice and tenets of IS? Were they foreigners, either from other parts of the Syria, or from wider areas? Did IS feel like gangsters who had taken over town? Or were there there perceptively different strata among IS? What were the impressions of IS by the people with whom they came into contact? Were some simple psychopaths and crazies, were some obviously devout Muslims, did any one see signs that some IS people might not embrace all of the brutality of the regime? What was the role of women? Did the city start to feel riddled with IS informers?
It seems amazing that a film originating in the heart of IS territory, its proclaimed capital, does not in any manner touch on something about the nature composition and organisation of the regime that oppressed them. Or is the truth too close to home? Are the real ghosts the collaborators?
What form did life in Raqqa take on after IS took over? Was there rationing, did IS requisition most food for themselves? Schools, medical services, shops, transport…how did they change through the occupation?
Heineman’s film in the end lacks any ambition to place his brave subjects in the context of IS in Raqqa. According to the Heineman’s logic in the film, RBSS organise their resistance about those terrible indistinct clips of people being executed in the Raqqa main square. But again the movie is unable or unwilling to give us information about these ghosts. One of them, a cousin of one of the RBSS group seems to be a victim, but as for the rest those seen in clips and those unseen, we are given no information. They are become objects.
Of course indiscriminate murder is a sufficient reason to oppose. But the feeling from Heineman is that these terrible mundane images of execution are enough to justify his film. The film can be legitimised about these images and the action of RBSS sufficiently explained. My feeling is is that Heineman’s failure to at least probe more deeply his respondents experience of IS in Raqqa, has as its consequence that it is IS that are the real ghosts of his movie.
And of course it is traumatically ironic that as the film is released Raqqa is being pulverised from land and air by the allies. Raqqa’s citizens are dieing in their hundreds under American and Russian bombs and Syrian Arms ordinance. They are still silent. A people with no voice, a people who are simply images for the 24 hour news channels. Objects as they are pulled out of rubble or lie in blood soaked field hospital cots waiting for a doctor. adrin neatrour email@example.com