Oscar-nominated documentarian Matt Heineman is known for diving into the heart of conflict. His first film, Escape Fire, looked at the American Health Care system. His second film, Cartel Land, centered on Mexican drug cartels. Now his latest film, City of Ghosts, which screened this past week at the Sundance Film Festival, tackles ISIS, and the journalists who oppose them.
City of Ghosts profiles the fearless citizen journalists who run the website “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS). The site has chronicled the human rights abuses of ISIS since 2014 and is still considered one of the best sources of information about daily conflict in Syria. As a result of their work, ISIS has murdered several RBSS members, and current contributors continue to be tracked, forced to move between safe houses.
A seemingly fearless filmmaker, Heineman follows several RBSS journalists, now exiled in Turkey and Germany, over the course of a year. The result is an intimate portrait of the friendships and traumas of a group of individuals who persist in the face of incredible evil. We spoke with Heineman about how his subjects are doing today, why their work is so important, and what he hopes viewers will take away from this film.
You have said you found this project because you were reading obsessively about ISIS. What fascinated you about it?
It was something that captured the fear of almost everyone — how it came about and what was behind it. But that’s not the story I ended up making. The story I ended up making was about a group of people who were trying to counter that narrative and counter the propaganda ISIS was putting out. The film is to some degree about a war of information, and that is why these guys are risking their lives every single day to expose what is happening in Raqqa. If it wasn’t for them, we really wouldn’t know what is happening inside the caliphate.
How are the RBSS members you interviewed doing now?
They still live in daily fear. They are threatened all the time, but that is not stopping them from doing what they are doing.
What do Westerners misunderstand about Syria?
Ask Americans, whether it’s health care, education, or foreign policy, and we think that there is a silver bullet that is going to fix it. This issue is so complex. This is an ideology that they are fighting, and this ideology lives in the children and lives in a generation of kids that will continue whether or not ISIS is there or not there. I don’t think RBSS are going to be out of a job anytime soon. Their work is going to be necessary for a long long time.
Cartel Land and City of Ghosts are both David and Goliath stories, about outsiders that are pushing up against big, powerful, dangerous, influential systems, what attracts you to these stories?
In both of these films we saw people who rose up to stand up for what they believe in, who rose up against horrific evil that was destroying their societies. That is something that hopefully moves anybody. What I wanted to do with both of these films is force the audience to think about: What would you do? Would you have the bravery to stand up? What’s it like to be there? What’s it like to be hunted by ISIS? My goal with this film is to place the audience right in the middle of the action, so that hopefully they have a much greater understanding of what has happened.
How do you handle your own fear going to these places?
As you continue to do work like this, I think its key to have a healthy dose of respect for fear, and not become complacent or cocky or arrogant with how you handle fear, because that’s when you start to make stupid decisions. If there is one thing I have learned between the two projects it is never let your guard down or drop your antennas, and follow your instincts.