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.

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