Searing documentary 'City of Ghosts' honors Syria's citizen journalists

American journalists think they've got it tough by being occasionally manhandled or denied press credentials at political gatherings.

Meanwhile, the citizen journalists in Syria risk being tortured and publicly beheaded for simply sending out tweets and photos on social media.

The story of these daring citizen journalists becomes the stuff of a riveting nonfiction thriller in Matthew Heineman's searing documentary "City of Ghosts."

Like his 2015 expose on brutal Mexican drug lords in "Cartel Land," Heineman's "City of Ghosts" thrusts us into the front lines of conflict where scenes percolate with palpable danger.

After the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a new group called the Islamic State (ISIS) moves into the Syrian city of Raqqa, taking control and imposing harsh restrictions on its people.

Syrian citizens form a rebel movement called "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" (RBSS) to resist ISIS. They post video and photos on social media to tell a seemingly disinterested world about executions, torture and brutality meted out by ISIS.

Heineman's commitment to unsanitized journalism extends to showing us smuggled footage of public beheadings of citizens, a scene that would be blunted by mainstream media blurry spots or quick cutaways.

The scene is shocking, as it should be, and it settles the question of whether reporting graphic acts of barbarity desensitizes viewers.

Here, certainly, it does not.

"City of Ghosts" follows key RBSS leaders who persist in documenting atrocities despite death threats and the killings of their family members by ISIS, which even tracks down and assassinates Syrian newspaper editor Naji Jerf seeking refuge in Turkey.

Then, RBSS members who flee to Germany must deal with anti-immigration neo-Nazi groups incapable of discerning Syrian freedom fighters from terrorists.

"City of Ghosts" doesn't need to lionize these journalists. Their deeds and sacrifices speak for themselves.

Heineman's timely doc serves as a rallying cry to journalists everywhere to keep accurate information flowing, and to remember that, unlike the "X-Files" slogan, the truth isn't always out there.

Not until somebody puts it out there.

“City of Ghosts”

★ ★ ★ ★

A documentary directed by: Matthew Heineman

Other: An Amazon Studios release. Rated R for language, violence. 90 minutes

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