There’s no way to not speak highly of Matthew Heineman‘s City of Ghosts, which premiered at Sundance ’17 and which I saw last night at a special screening at CAA. It’s a melancholy doc about a team of brave Syrian dudes who’ve been filing online reports since early ’14 about the atrocity-filled occupation of Raqqa, their home town, by the ideological fiends known as ISIS. 

Hands down, all the critics are swearing by Heineman’s doc and bowing down. I’m an admirer also, but I have a few questions.

Co-founded by the 26 year-old Abdalaziz Alhamza, the group has been posting about the medieval brutality of ISIS (killings, beheadings, torture, deprivations) via their website, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently or RSS. Initially based in Raqqa and then Turkey and finally Germany, they’ve passed along reports (which have occasionally included photos and even videos) from brave citizen correspondents. If ISIS could get their hands on any these guys they’d be quickly killed, just as surely as their friends and family have been shot or beheaded without mercy.

Following last night’s CAA screening, a discussion of Matthew Heineman’s doc with RSS co-founder Abdalaziz Alhamza sitting at far left.

Who doesn’t know that ISIS is one of the rankest manifestations of absolute evil in the history of the species, and that the only righteous solution is to herd the entire army and particularly its leaders into a huge, 300-foot-deep hole in the Syrian desert, and then bury them alive under thousands of tons of sand? Everyone understands this, no one disputes, settled issue.

Nonetheless your heart goes out to the RSS guys. You feel almost nothing but admiration and respect. Anyone reading this who wants to help out should send money to RSS. I myself am planning to send a little coin. If nobility and bravery count for anything, City of Ghosts, which has been playing the festival circuit for six months now, will almost certainly be nominated for a Best Feature Doc Oscar.

But here’s the thing, a criticism that none of us are supposed to mention. Too much of City of Ghosts is about lethargy and resignation and guys sitting in front of computer screens with glum expressions. Yes, I know — who can blame them? What’s been happening to their home city is almost too brutal to ponder. But the fact remains that too much of this film is about a kind of semi-passive contemplation of the seemingly unstoppable horror of ISIS. Yes, the RSS guys are fighting them but there’s no hint that the tide may be turning when in fact it is.

The truth is that Heineman’s doc doesn’t leave you much at the end of the day. It fills you with sadness and despair. I for one believe it should do better than this, and it could start by bringing the story up to date.

ISIS has in fact been losing ground since last fall and is widely seen as being on the run and probably facing extermination down the road, but you’d never know this from watching City of Ghosts.

I would have felt more satisfied if Heineman, who has no choice but to try to keep pace with breaking news when he makes a doc of this sort, had been diligent enough to report recent ISIS setbacks. The New Yorker ran a piece on 10.17.16 called “ISIS on the Run.” On 6.12.17 Express reporter Katie Mansfield wrote that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “is on the brink of losing his two main strongholds as the terror group faces defeat in Mosul and Raqqa.” Early this month the second battle of Raqqa began — there’s not even a closing-credits mention of this.

Abdalaziz Alhamza said during last night’s post-screening q & a that he regards recent news reports about al-Baghdadi having been killed by the Russians as “propaganda,” and yet multiple news sources are running with this story as we speak.

Heads of various Raqqa citizens killed by ISIS.

RSS co-founder Abdalaziz Alhamza.