'City Of Ghosts' Shows Everyday Horrors Of Living With ISIS NPR's Michel Martin speaks with director Matthew Heineman about his new film City of Ghosts, which follows a group of citizen journalists from Raqqa on life in ISIS-occupied Syria.

'City Of Ghosts' Shows Everyday Horrors Of Living With ISIS

'City Of Ghosts' Shows Everyday Horrors Of Living With ISIS

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NPR's Michel Martin speaks with director Matthew Heineman about his new film City of Ghosts, which follows a group of citizen journalists from Raqqa on life in ISIS-occupied Syria.


Now to Raqqa in Syria. For the past three years, it's been known as the defacto capital of the Islamic State. Coalition forces have begun a drive to force ISIS out of that city. And for years, ISIS has tried to make sure that whatever the world knew about Raqqa came from their carefully produced propaganda videos.

But from the beginning, a small group of young Syrians - college students, teachers and other professionals - have worked to counteract the propaganda. They call themselves Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently or RBSS. And they've been surreptitiously documenting daily life and daily terror under ISIS rule, sending their reporting out to the world, all at extreme risk to themselves and their loved ones. A new documentary in theaters this week called "City Of Ghosts" tells their story.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Much of what we know about atrocities committed by ISIS in Syria comes from courageous citizens armed with smartphones.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: The dozen activists are pulling back the curtain on the horrors of ISIS rule in their small city.

MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: "I need to stay alive," Mohamed told us, "keep getting the word out."

MARTIN: To hear more about the film, we're joined now by its director, Matthew Heineman and one of the central subjects, Abdalaziz Alhamza, spokesman for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. They're both with us from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Matthew Heineman, Abdalaziz Alhamza, thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

MATTHEW HEINEMAN: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So, Abdalaziz, I'm going to start with you. Do you remember how it was that you and your colleagues decided to start documenting what was happening? Do you remember, was there a moment when it made you say, this is something that has to happen?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So for my colleagues and I, all of us, we used to be activists during Syrian revolution. Even before ISIS, some of us were forced to leave the city. And we ended up in Turkey. So watching ISIS propaganda like the fake news that were coming from our city, no one paid attention back that time. So we had a Skype call. And directly after the Skype call, we decided to do something. And we started that movement.

MARTIN: What was your goal?

ALHAMZA: When we started our organization, one of our goals was to educate, to draw the attention of people everywhere about what's going on in Syria in general and Raqqa specifically. So people, they will be aware about what's going on in Syria.

MARTIN: And, Matthew, what about you? What was your goal?

HEINEMAN: You know, I don't start out making films with a certain goal in mind. You know, I think I was fascinated by this war of ideas, this war propaganda, this war of information between ISIS's slick propaganda, almost Hollywood-style videos on one side and then RBSS's work on the other trying to counter this narrative. But for me, the film became much more than that. You know, it became an immigrant story.

As these members of the group were forced to flee, after members were killed moving from safe house to safe house fearing for their lives, continuing to get death threats, it became a story of rising nationalism in Europe. It became a story of trauma. And so I think I started out making one film, and then I ended up making something that was much different as well.

MARTIN: Well, I'll tell you, Matthew, one of the things that's really striking about the film, it's beautifully shot, but it's very hard to watch. I'm not going to lie to you. I mean, you are seeing people at their worst doing awful things to other people. And I wondered how you thought about how much to show.

HEINEMAN: I think for me, using the footage from RBSS showing life inside the caliphate, showing life inside the capital of ISIS, using ISIS's footage as well, you know, we combed through hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, it was important to me to show the horrors that the citizens of Raqqa live with every single day. The fear of walking outside, the trauma of walking into your town square and seeing heads on fences.

And so for me to shy away from that violence would be, you know, not doing justice to what they deal with every single day. On the other hand, I didn't want people to run out of movie theaters because it was so unbearable. And so it is very much a balancing act between those two things. Every single frame, every single moment, every single scene was discerned and argued about to try to find that balance.

MARTIN: Abdalaziz, what about you? I have to say that it is very difficult to watch. And one of the most difficult scenes is that one of the fathers of one of the members of the group was executed publicly as part of this propaganda video to show, you know, what happens to people who fight against, you know, ISIS. And the son watches this, his own father being murdered in this way. And I wanted to know for you, I mean, can you watch this film? And how do you deal with that?

ALHAMZA: We've been doing this work for almost three years, so we used to watch these kind of execution videos trying to follow up if there is any mistake or anything. And it was so hard to watch the execution videos of our colleagues, our friends, our family members. It was like completely different with Hamud (ph) for him. He kept saying that working the video gives him power to complete. So for him, he watched a video two or three times weekly to keep doing that work.

MARTIN: As we mentioned earlier, coalition forces do seem to be moving closer to taking the city back from ISIS control. Abdalaziz, I wanted to know what are your hopes? I mean, do you hope that if you and I speak this time next year, do you hope to be back home? I mean, what's your hope for the future?

ALHAMZA: Yeah, for sure. Like, I hope one day that I'll be able to go home, but it sounds so hard. As you mentioned, the international coalitions started a battle to defeat ISIS, but the main thing that I want to mention that the international coalition killed civilians this year in Raqqa, way more than ISIS did. So we hope that the coalition that will defeat ISIS will do better than that. So I hope other things will be fixed, not only in Raqqa and Syria and everywhere. And they will be able to go back home.

MARTIN: And what do you think your job will be then?

ALHAMZA: I don't know. So far, maybe like a bartender.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. Abdalaziz Alhamza is a Syrian journalist and activist. He and his fellow citizen journalists with Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently are the focus of a new documentary called "City Of Ghosts," which is out this week. Matthew Heineman is the film's director. They were both kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ALHAMZA: Thanks for having us.

HEINEMAN: Thanks for having us.

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