Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman follows up Cartel Land (a riveting expose of Mexico’s drug wars) with City of Ghosts, the story of a group of Syrian citizen journalists, known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), defiantly revealing the truth about life under Islamic State rule. Heineman talked to HeyUGuys about the challenges he faced filming the group’s exiled members on the run from Isis at safe houses in Turkey and Germany while under constant threat of exposure.
When did you become aware of the work of RBSS and how did you first make contact with them?
When I was travelling around making Cartel Land Isis was becoming front page news. I was reading voraciously about RBSS and trying to understand this phenomenon. Eventually I came across this article by David Remnick in the New Yorker and immediately upon reading it I knew I wanted to tell their story. I reached out to two of the guys who were in exile and told them what I wanted to do and about a week later we started filming.
How did you gain their trust?
Trust is everything with the types of films I make. I want to make visceral, emotional films in which you really get attached to the characters. To do that you need a level of intimacy. That intimacy doesn’t come with knocking on someone’s door and hanging out with them for a day. It comes with months and months of relationship building to create a rapport with your subjects.
What moved you to want to tell their story?
The reason RBSS came into being was because Raqqa was entirely cut off from the rest of the world – no information coming in or going out. So, these guys banded together to expose the atrocities happening in their home town – first by the Assad regime and then by Isis. They’re not traditional reporters, they’re citizen journalists. They’re just regular guys who were studying to be lawyers, doctors, scientists. They’re from middle-class backgrounds and didn’t have to do this, it was a choice, and I think that’s remarkable.
It’s a shocking portrait of a city and its people brought to their knees by Isis. What are your hopes for the film?
So often these big issues of Syria and Isis get relegated to headlines, stats and photos. It’s my job to provide a human face to this and allow the audience to go on an emotional journey. Hopefully, because of that, they’ll have a bit more empathy for this group, the people of Raqqa, the people of Syria and immigrants across the world who are being forced to flee their homes. During this debate about immigration and terrorism we forget there are human beings with real stories behind the headlines. The execution videos circulated by Isis are so dehumanising that it almost feels like a computer game or a movie. There’s a scene in the film where Hamoud watches his own father’s execution video, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to film. It was incredibly disturbing but it’s something that he does to find strength which is why I felt comfortable filming it. Right before he’s killed, Hamoud sees strength in his father’s eyes. It’s also a way for the audience to connect with something that feels so foreign. When you watch a son watching his father being executed because of his work hopefully that inspires compassion.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
This is the hardest film I’ve ever had to make, by far. The logistics were tough because I’m filming with people who are on the run, living in safe house and don’t necessarily want to be filmed. I don’t speak Arabic so it was hard to communicate. It was a struggle to find ways to film that wouldn’t put them in danger or me in danger. On a human level, one of the hardest moments was shooting the final scene in the film with Aziz (the spokesman for RBSS). The film begins as a war of ideas, this war of propaganda between Isis and RBSS. But one of the reasons I love making films is being open to the story changing.
The story also became an immigrant story, a story of finding yourself in a new land, a story of rising nationalism in Europe and a story of the cumulative effects of trauma. So, that final scene with Aziz was extremely important because it showed the cost of what they’ve been through which we would find impossible to imagine. They had been arrested and tortured by the Assad regime, arrested and tortured by Isis, family members and colleagues killed, forced to go on the run and facing death threats. It’s unfathomable to us.
I was interested in trying to understand what that does to a human being, the effect of all that trauma and by association the experience of millions more Syrians who have suffered in the same way. They carried themselves with such stoicism. Hamoud looks like he’s 35 but he’s just 23 – these guys are old beyond their years. As a human being, all I wanted to do was hug Aziz but my job is to document and capture these moments which was really important for the film. But after we stopped rolling I did give him a hug.
What has their life been like in western Europe?
It’s tragic, and a horrific irony, that they had to leave Syria because they’re denounced as unbelievers and then walking along the street near a nationalist march they’re called terrorists because of the colour of their skin.
What questions does the film raise that the world will struggle to answer?
Right now, there’s a fight raging in Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces, largely funded by the US, are circling Isis in a bid to oust them. But as Aziz says in the film, “Isis is an idea…” Bombs are not gonna stop this idea, weapons are not gonna fix this problem. It’s great that Isis will eventually be removed from Raqqa but how do we actually combat this ideology? This perversion of Islam has been disseminated and sold all across the world and, especially in these regions, a generation of children have been indoctrinated by this ideology. How do we as a society, as a global community, as corporations, as journalists, figure out ways to combat this extremism? Because it’s not going away any time soon.
What does the future hold for the members of RBSS featured in the film? Are they still under threat of exposure?
They’re safety was something we considered from the beginning. They knew making this film would expose them and that, once it came out and was seen by millions of people across the world, undoubtedly their threat profile would increase. It was something they were okay with. They wanted to come out from behind the veneer of social media. They wanted to show they’re real people, not avatars. They’re modern Muslim men fighting against the perversion of their religion. That was important to them, despite the risks. We were very careful how we communicated with them and where and when we filmed. And we allowed them to review the film for security reasons so we didn’t inadvertently reveal something that could put them in danger. But yes, because of their continuing work the threat to their lives is still considerable.
Have you encountered any pressures yourself for telling their story?In telling their story have you also become a target?
I’d prefer not to talk about that… You can come to your own conclusions. I guess one way I can answer it… When I was shooting Cartel Land the danger and the fear was very physical. I was in shoot outs, in torture chambers and all sorts of shady and extremely dangerous situations. Here, I was following a group who had been in danger and were being hunted by a terrorist organisation. It was very bizarre because I never saw weapons, never saw Isis but they were omnipresent at all times. So, the fear was a different type of fear. And as you’ve seen in this country very recently, Isis is not just in Syria.
Hamoud says that ‘danger has a special taste’. Do you feel the same way?
I never felt like it was ‘cool’ to be in danger. For me, it’s always about the story. I’ve been willing to put myself in dangerous situations because I’ve felt compelled to transmit these worlds to audiences. That’s one of the beauties of documentary film, it allows us to connect with people we would otherwise never meet and got to places we wouldn’t normally go. And, in a sense, I’m the vehicle that allows the audience to do that.
“My nerves are shot. You start hoping to die of natural causes…” Aziz appears visibly shaken at the end of the film. It’s hardly surprising given the pressure he’s under and the dislocation from his homeland. How’s he doing now?
The group have been very supportive with the film and very proud of it. He’s still in a similar situation. But you know the amazing thing about these guys is that they’re not walking around with their heads in their hands, there’s such a love, brotherhood and camaraderie which for me was really important to show. And that sustains them. Muslim men are so often portrayed as terrorists or victims so it was important to show how the vast majority of modern Muslim men really are. These moments of humanity were key to show they are real people who care about the same things we all do. When the teacher flirts with his wife on the subway, when the guys are reunited and hug each other… small moments like these were important.
Hamoud says, “Whoever holds the camera is stronger.” Is that a mantra that guides you?
I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think film was a powerful medium that could instigate conversation. I don’t necessarily make a film because I think I can change a piece of legislation or whatever… All I can ask is that my films get people to think, get their heart beating and create a sense of empathy. Every film you make changes you and this one has changed me forever. It demanded to be made because the topic smacked me in the face. Maybe it will create further conversations that can lead to change but the first step is getting people to care.
City of Ghosts is in cinemas July 21 – you can read our 5* review here.