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Laramie Movie Scope: City of Ghosts

Citizen journalists go to war against ISIS

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 3, 2017 – This is an inspiring documentary film about a brave group of citizen journalists who fought against ISIS in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. Their weapons were smartphones and computers. Their goal was to let the world know what was happening in Raqqa when ISIS tried to cut off all communications. The journalists succeeded, but the cost of victory was very high.

With bombs, bullets and knives ISIS murdered some of the journalists and some of their family members. This is real war, but also a cyber war, conducted in social media platforms as well as in mainstream media outlets. It is also an international war. The long reach of ISIS threatens journalists living in Europe as well as those living in Syria.

At the center of this particular fight are activists known as Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). The group formed during the Syrian Civil War to document and reveal to the world what was going on in Raqqa, particularly what happened when ISIS invaded that remote city in 2014 and clamped down on all communications. Things got so dangerous for some members of the group that they had to flee the country.

RBSS became a two-part structure, the inside group and the outside group. The group inside Raqqa, fed pictures, video and text to the outside group, living in places outside Syria like Germany and Turkey. The outside group put the information from the inside group on its website, Facebook, Twitter pages, and other places on the Internet, where it was picked up by the mainstream media because of its news value.

People shown in the film, Hamoud, Hussam, Mohamad, Hassan (no last names given on some of these because of danger to family members) and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (killed by ISIS) are either dead, or living under death threats from ISIS. Some of these people were assassinated, some died trying to make the dangerous water passage to Europe.

In addition to the murderous ISIS human rights violations in the film, we see a lot of these RBSS Syrian refugees hiding in Europe, still getting the word out, despite the murder of friends and family. One man stares at a video of his father being murdered by a member of ISIS.

The film also contains video of the ceremony to award RBSS the International Press Freedom Award in 2015, from the Committee to Protect Journalists. The ceremony seems a world away from Raqqa. During the ceremony the recipient thinks of RBSS activists and family members being murdered.

RBSS used undercover journalism techniques, anonymous interviews and graphics to spread the word. One particularly clever form of anti-ISIS propaganda was a kind of tabloid newspaper put out in Raqqa by RBSS using the same front cover as an ISIS publication. It drove them crazy, said one member of RBSS about the ISIS reaction to the publication.

ISIS became increasingly determined to cut of RBSS communication. It ordered the destruction of all satellite dishes in Raqqa, destruction seen in the movie. One goal of RBSS is to counter ISIS propaganda on the internet, by showing the realities of life under ISIS rule. This amounts to cyber warfare. ISIS has a very sophisticated online presence.

In addition to showing the realities of ISIS rule, RBSS also shows the reality of U.S. and Russian bombing of Raqqa. In one video, a resident of Raqqa asks what sense it makes to destroy an entire city with bombs to kill a few dozen ISIS fighters. After this documentary was completed, ISIS was finally kicked out of Raqqa, but at a terrible cost to the city. Most of the city was destroyed by bombs. Not only that, but the Syrian government still considers Raqqa to be an occupied city.

Like Aleppo, Raqqa was a rebel city, so its future won't be settled until there is an end to the civil war in Syria. On the one hand, this is an inspirational movie about the power of journalism. On the other hand, it is a solemn reminder of the utter destruction that war can bring. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright 2017 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]