City of Ghosts Delivers a Haunting View of International Controversy


This film is showing at the Sundance Film Festival. City of Ghosts is a powerful and timely movie.

Caylea Barone, Class of 2021

City of Ghosts, a 2017 film directed, produced and filmed by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman, brought many people to Golden Auditorium this past Friday. This event was co-sponsored by the Peace and Conflict Studies Department. City of Ghosts is a documentary film that follows the journey of a handful of anonymous activists known as “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” or RBSS. This group banded together after their homeland, Raqqa, was taken over by ISIS in 2014. The group initially formed to document the Assad regime and his humanitarian attacks. By using cell phone footage and social media platforms, RBSS has been able to share its experiences with the world, in light of the fact that Western journalists are generally unable to access ISIS-held Raqqa. Many members of the group have been killed since the film was made, as their work documented the true horror and fear in Raqqa. The power of images and violence is a strong part of the narrative, as many graphic scenes depict the brutalities committed against civilians by ISIS honsetly.

ISIS has since lost its control of Raqqa, but Heineman believes a global community should be responding to the ISIS propaganda and should continue to attack its ideologies. The men and women of RBSS work in secret, and some have fled for their lives; even living in exile, they are not safe. Raqqa was and will remain the home of those in RBSS and they look forward to a day when they can safely return to their city. 

The film opens with a quotation about the city of Raqqa: “The people of my city are known for their generosity and sacrifice… and when one house was happy on the street, the whole neighborhood would celebrate.” The people of Syria had been living under the Assad regime for 40 years, and they screamed for freedom, believing that the Syrian revolution would free them. However, in the absence of power, ISIS took over, painting the city black and hiding it from the world. RBSS even documents how ISIS banned satellite dishes and put up posters as propaganda, explaining to people why they should destroy their satellite dishes to protect themselves from espionage. The only media coming out of their city was state propagated media, claiming that the people of Raqqa were prosperous, despite the pervasive hunger, disease and death that saturated the streets.

The original goal of RBSS was to raise awareness among the citizens and to show the world what ISIS was really doing in Raqqa. They started a Facebook page and a Twitter account where they tweeted in English to spread awareness to the civilian world. However, anyone considered an enemy of ISIS was killed in the public square and their bodies were put on display as a warning; since its creation, many members of RBSS have been and continue to be assassinated, beheaded and tortured. They only had two options: stay in the city and face death, or leave. Thus, members of RBSS fled to Germany and Turkey while an internal group remained in Raqqa to send information to be published by the external groups. War between ISIS and RBSS had begun, and as ISIS knew the names and the places where some members of RBSS lived, they posted photos online of their homes as a fear tactic with messages of warning and impending death.

Although RBSS currently receives support from NGOs, the group was originally a self-funded activist group. Their media presence has been felt worldwide, as their movement gained fame and helped to expose the horrendous realities that the city of Raqqa, and Syria as a whole, have been facing in spite of a lack of Western news coverage. To help grow its efforts in Raqqa, ISIS created large productions with Hollywood-style effects to coerce and encourage people to join the Islamic State. The media war that ISIS now wages to recruit for their Islamic State exploits Islam for its cause.

Many members of RBSS have lost family members due to being targets of ISIS. One member of the group said, “They executed our brother and our father so that we would stop. But we are going to continue. I promise you that we will continue,” in direct response to ISIS. Still today, caliphate clubs are present in every city and the Islamic State uses children as firewood to fight its enemies. The streets of Raqqa have been turned into training camps and the children join ISIS because they do not have any choice and they do not yet fear death. 

As one member of RBSS concluded, “We woke up in a world of war. We woke up in a revolution… and we are sure that our words are stronger than their weapons.” 

The film charges that the fight to end terrorist ideologies and their strongholds in certain areas is not over, and we must continue to fight their heinous acts with civilized power, to make the world safer and to ensure a home for everyone – especially the refugees of Syria.

Contact Caylea Barone at [email protected]