One of the most uplifting and happiest movies you’ll see all year, the documentary City of Ghosts explores the fall of sinful, carefree Raqqa, Syria and its rescue by the bastions of hope and prosperity we all love and respect: mother-fucking ISIS. Yes, if you’re in a crappy mood and just want to have your spirits soar for 90 minutes, there’s nothing like watching little kids shoot men in the back of the head, more detached heads hung up on fence posts like something out of “Game of Thrones,” and the destruction of a city.
From filmmaker Matthew Heineman, who made the explosive but disappointingly uneven Cartel Land, City of Ghosts follows several Syrian activists who formed the flows-off-the-tongue group “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.” They were among the first to observe what ISIS truly was, and have paid the price dearly as they’ve essentially been exiled, are under constant assassination threat, and have watched family members left behind get murdered in retaliation for their efforts.
So if you think your life sucks, think again.
City of Ghosts is a stronger film than Cartel Land, as it offers a tighter, more focused story that rarely deviates from its objective. As with Cartel Land, the first half is stronger than the second, if only because the first half features more first-account footage and description from ISIS’s rise in Raqqa. Understandably, as time progresses and the main players are forced from the country, the movie shifts focus to the men’s efforts and achievements, and the psychological toll their experiences have had on them. Unlike Cartel Land, City of Ghosts maintains your attention throughout and, overall, is a more consistently well made documentary.
City of Ghosts is one of the most powerful documentaries you’ll see all year, not only for its exploration of ISIS but for the parallels it draws to the danger of hate, fear and ideology in western countries as well. It’s also not for the faint of heart: the depictions of murder and terror are tough to watch. Let’s just say I had to, at the end of the film, quickly turn on videos of kittens meowing to calm my wife down.
As far me, I was already as happy as happy can be. Those ISIS fellows sure know how to hold a party. It’s all fun and games, right? Right?
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.