MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: CITY OF GHOSTS and Citizen Journalist Abdelaziz Alhamza

What does “home” mean to you and how far would you go to protect it? That’s at the heart of City of Ghosts, the documentary by Matthew Heineman (director of the Academy Award-nominated Cartel Land), who follows a group of refugees from Raqqa, the first Syrian city during the Arab Spring to resist the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad, only to fall later to ISIS. These young men, several of them only in their twenties, struggle to reclaim their home under the banner “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS, abbreviated). Nonviolent protesters, they are citizen journalists from previous other lines of work, who’ve stepped in for professional reporters who no longer can cover the war zone because the pros have become targets of both Assad and ISIS. (A harrowing statistic: since 1992, 85 journalists have been killed in Syria.) Just as in last year’s Oscar-winning Best Documentary Short about the Syrian crisis, The White Helmets, where director Orlando von Einsiedel relied on footage shot largely by Aleppo native Khaled Khateeb, City of Ghosts is powered by images captured on cameras and cell phones by members of RBSS. By shooting and disseminating the breaking stories no one else can get out, the RBSS volunteers put themselves in as much danger as if they were employed by Reuters, AP or The New York Times.

City of Ghosts opens in Manhattan at a 2015 ceremony where RBSS received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Shown accepting the award on behalf of the group is RBSS co-founder Abdelaziz Alhamza — Aziz, for short — the designated spokesman because, as he says, “my English isn’t terrible.” He makes polite small talk later with guests at the black-tie affair, one of whom, doubtless with the best intentions, urges Aziz and the other RBSS activists to find some relaxation while in New York. But his advice feels ironic, as do the instructions of a photographer snapping a group photo. “Maybe a little smile, possibly,” she asks, before telling RBSS co-founder Hamoud al-Mousa, “You’re so serious, my friend.” As we’ll see as the film unfolds, “serious” doesn’t come close to describing the situation and dedication of this group, who work in shifts around the clock in safehouses at undisclosed locations, living on coffee and cigarettes while under constant threat of exposure and death.

Aziz was a university student in 2012 when Assad’s forces, in a crackdown on protesters in Raqqa, arrested and tortured 15 schoolboys for writing anti-regime graffiti. Immediately the citizens rose in opposition and young guys with cameras raced to record the fighting. After Bashar’s forces withdrew, a power vacuum followed and in 2014 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria moved into Raqqa, pushing out victorious rebel groups. Aziz and Hamoud, a self-described film obsessive, continued shooting and to their horror, they witnessed a steady escalation of terror. They recorded the public executions, beheadings and crucifixions of anyone who opposed ISIS. Soon ISIS was targeting RBSS for posting its undercover footage online, where it was picked up by regional and overseas news organizations. Several members of the collective had to flee, finding asylum in Germany, as Aziz did, or in Gaziantep in Turkey, near the Turkish-Syrian border. But even in exile RBSS wasn’t safe; their journalism mentor and co-founder, a courageous filmmaker named Naji Jerf, was shot down in broad daylight on a busy Gaziantep street. And when ISIS couldn’t locate RBSS reporters, the terrorists turned to murdering members of the collective’s families back home in Raqqa. Both Hamoud’s father and older brother were killed by ISIS in retaliation and as a warning to others.

In a telephone interview, I asked Aziz that, after all the many death threats RBSS had received, why did they choose to become even more visible by allowing director Heineman to follow them around with a camera and what was it about Matthew that led them to trust him? “We met him for the first time in Washington, D.C.,” Aziz replied, “when two of my colleagues and I were told by someone with the Committee to Protect Journalists that there was this filmmaker who very much wanted to talk to us. At that time we had no interest in making a documentary, but we met with Matthew and he told us what he had in mind and what his role would be. Then RBSS spent a couple of days discussing [his proposal]. We decided to sign on to the project for the same reason we had formed RBSS: our mission is to get the word out that Raqqa is being slaughtered silently and we knew this film could get the word out even more. We trusted Matthew because he presented himself professionally and came across as a good person. And once we began filming [the documentary], he was with us all the time and we got to know him and trust him even better.”

Heineman’s behind-the-scenes footage is intimate and gripping, but he also does an excellent job of explaining a highly complex scenario, in terms that a layman can understand. He organizes his material logically and incorporates clips from across the globe—including from ISIS itself. City of Ghosts uses a number of ISIS propaganda videos to help illustrate how the terrorists recruit new members. I asked Aziz how much of the ISIS army is comprised of foreigners. “Our research shows that there are fighters in ISIS from 84 different countries,” he told me. “They come from everywhere, from all ages and join for many different reasons.” But, as RBSS’s own video coverage indicates, Raqqa is far from the “paradise” ISIS claims. Surely, many of these recruits must figure out soon after arrival that they’ve been conned, so how many defect? Aziz replied, “It takes a lot of effort and determination for many foreign recruits to make it to Syria. But as hard as that is, it’s harder to leave Raqqa once they’re there. Each person who wants to defect is pretty much on his or her own to figure out how to get out and they fear for their lives.”

As City of Ghosts makes clear, the struggle for Syria is being waged as much on the internet as it is on the ground. “The battle between ISIS and us is growing every day,” Aziz says in the movie. “That’s why today, when you search on Google for ‘Raqqa,’ you won’t only see what ISIS wants you to see. You’ll find us.’’ RBSS continues the fight, not only by smuggling out video shot by members still in Syria, but also by pushing Western media to step up. Recently Aziz penned an op-ed in The New York Times, “Bombs Will Not Defeat ISIS (but Maybe the Internet Will”) and Heineman shot an accompanying video in which Aziz asks the help of “international governments and innovative leaders of Silicon Valley” to defeat extremist ideology of ISIS. I asked Aziz if during his West Coast press tour had he met with any of them, or had any of the high-tech titans he entreated—like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube—reached out to him?

“None of them has reached out to me,” he replied.

I have to wonder what they’re waiting for. They wouldn’t, if it were their homes at stake.

# # #

Leave a Reply

Columns

Gregg Goldstein on: Irene Cho: A Force of Nature

Melissa Mobley on: Irene Cho: A Force of Nature

awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at scarab13.com. All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at scarab13.com. All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Richard on: DVD Geek: Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice Ultimate

Ray Pride on: The DVD Wrapup: Founder, Punching Henry, Paris 05:59, Apocalypse Child, Donnie Darko, Woman of the Year, Tampopo, Handmaid’s Tale and more

RAY WEIKEL on: The DVD Wrapup: Founder, Punching Henry, Paris 05:59, Apocalypse Child, Donnie Darko, Woman of the Year, Tampopo, Handmaid’s Tale and more

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

estes1963 on: The DVD Wrapup: Drive Angry, Once Upon a Time in the West, Adua & Her Friends, A Clockwork Orange, Undertow, The Joke, Passion Play, Kaboom, Harvest ...

Jarad on: Nudity in Film: Why Bare Chests Do Not Equal Bare Breasts

Quote Unquotesee all »

“I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover something in them – when I can get something out of them that I can share with people. The week I quit, I hadn’t planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this. One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, Scenes From a Mall. I couldn’t write another bad review of Bette Midler. I thought she was so brilliant, and when I saw her in that terrible production of ‘Gypsy’ on television, my heart sank. And I’d already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when you have to pan the same people a few years later, it tears your spirits apart.”
~ Pauline Kael On Quitting

“My father was a Jerome. My daughter’s middle name is Jerome. But my most vexing and vexed relationship with a Jerome was with Jerome Levitch, the subject of my first book under his stage and screen name, Jerry Lewis.

I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

~ Biographer Shawn Levy on Jerry Lewis on Facebook