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(The 2017 AFI Docs ran June 14-18 in Washington D.C. Lead critic Chris Reed brings us these reviews fresh from the fest.)

Before watching City of Ghosts, the harrowing new documentary from Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land), steel yourself for brutal footage of on-camera executions, many involving point-blank pistol shots to the head. That and the dead bodies littering the streets of the Syrian town of Raqqa, victims of the Islamic State in Syria (or ISIS), are enough to turn one’s stomach and brutalize one’s soul. And yet none of it feels gratuitous, for Heineman has crafted a film about the barbarism of war, in which ideology blinds its adherents from recognizing the common humanity of others, the result of which can only be madness. Fundamentalists of all stripes, from Nazis to jihadists, and every “-ism” and religion in between, engage in acts of terror that bear no fruit but death.

As the movie begins, members of the underground citizen press corps, “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), are awarded an international prize for the daring work they do to shed light on the horrors happening in their home town. A once-peaceful city towards the north of Syria, on the Euphrates RIver, it is now hell on earth. We flash back to March, 2012, to the beginning of the uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad‘s regime, where we get our first glimpse of the raw video footage of which the bulk of the film is comprised, shot by ordinary Syrians in the street. Two years later, a greater threat than Assad arrives, however, in the form of ISIS, which, since 2014, when it captured the city, has made Raqqa its capital. The occupation does not go unchallenged, however, and our friends from RBSS are the leading forces in that resistance.

Though the brave men (and a few women) of the barebones, and at first informal, organization, risk their lives and those of their loved ones to gather surreptitious footage of the brutality of the ISIS takeover, they persevere on the ground until the execution of one member of their inner circle (again, caught on camera) forces the chief members to flee for Turkey and Germany. They are hardly safe in either place, however, since ISIS issues periodic calls for their assassination, one of which takes the form of a slickly produced video predicting their deaths. Indeed, one of the running themes of the film is how propaganda becomes a vital, and ever-evolving, tool in the fight for morale and legitimacy, as important as actual violence. ISIS sees RBSS as an existential threat because it uncovers the lie that all is glorious in the new paradise.

We are embedded, first in Syria, and then in Turkey and Germany, with the leadership of RBSS, who receive their footage from those who remain behind in Raqqa, then edit and send it out to international news agencies. These guys – Aziz, Hamoud, Hussam and Mohamad – work tirelessly around the clock in hidden locations (though I, personally, worry about how much of those locations Heineman’s camera reveals), never fully safe and always worried about those they have left behind. During the filming, Hamoud receives a video (also slickly produced) of his father’s execution. And yet they persevere.

In Cartel Land, Heineman risked his life to accompany his subjects in Arizona and the Mexican province of Michoacán as they pursued paramilitary raids, the bullets whizzing by his camera. Here, much of his material has been gathered by others incurring even higher risks, while he focuses his direct efforts on the interviews and vérité footage in Turkey and Germany (which carries its own dangers, as per the above). The overall result is a more somber effort, less showy in its aesthetic (though I love Cartel Land), and at times dramatically less structured, though never not engrossing. It’s as if Heineman, having made a film where he was the unseen action hero of the drama, now wants to celebrate and honor those who do the same in even higher stakes. As a result, he makes a film that is not only a powerful indictment of fanaticism but a celebration of those who resist. Raqqa may, for now, be the “City of Ghosts,” but as long as RBSS remains active, those ghosts will not be forgotten.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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