City of Ghosts

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
City of Ghosts Movie Poster Image
Terrifying, essential docu about journalists fighting ISIS.
  • R
  • 2017
  • 92 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Champions those who courageously stand up against impossible odds.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The movie's subjects have chosen a life of fear and hiding in order to do whatever they can to fight for the good of home country. They get very little reward for their suffering, but in small measures, they can perhaps make the world a better place.

Violence

Infrequent but very strong, disturbing violence, including real images of beheaded victims, their heads impaled on fence posts. Executions, with victims shot and killed. Images of children being used as pawns in ISIS attacks. Victims tied up and paraded in the streets. Threats. Descriptions of violence.

Sex

Characters comment on sexy images in a Berlin store window.

Language

One use of "motherf----r" and one use of "son of a bitch."

Consumerism

Sony phones, laptops, etc.; Facebook, Twitter mentioned and shown.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Brief image of a man smoking a hookah. Frequent cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that City of Ghosts is a documentary about the journalists known as RBSS ("Reqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently"), who risk their lives to expose the evils of ISIS in Syria. Expect infrequent but terrifying scenes of brutal real-life violence, including ISIS' beheaded victims (whose severed heads are impaled on fence posts), executions, people being shot and killed, and others being tied up and paraded in the streets. Children are recruited into ISIS and used as pawns in attacks. Additional violence is spoken of/described. Racy images are briefly seen and discussed in a store window. Language includes one use of "motherf----r" and one use of "son of a bitch." Characters frequently smoke cigarettes, and there's a brief image of a man smoking a hookah. The film was directed by Oscar nominee Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land).

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What's the story?

In CITY OF GHOSTS, documentarian Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) tells the story of several journalists, who, after ISIS began taking over the city of Raqqa in Syria, started reporting on the insurgents' illicit, shocking activities. They call their group RBSS (for "Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently"), and their roster includes spokesman Aziz, reporter Mohamad, and cameraman Hamoud. All quickly find their lives in danger; constantly threatened by members of ISIS, they must go on the run, first across the border to Turkey and then to Germany. Using intel from brave souls still in Syria, the journalists continue to publish stories that the international media circulates to the rest of the world. But hiding and living in fear eventually begins to take its toll.

Is it any good?

Heineman's documentary may be a little static, but with its sympathetic depiction of fear and hiding, it paints a vivid, terrifying portrait of life under a powerful, evil regime. Heineman (of the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land) captures his journalist subjects after they've left Syria; while they still publish regularly, they mostly sit in safe houses and rely on others to supply stories and images. Still, they're targets and are continually threatened and hunted by ISIS.

City of Ghosts has a lot of harsh imagery, from pictures of executions and ISIS' beheaded victims to recruiting videos that brainwash children into joining the "cause." A demonstration in Berlin turns alarmingly violent as well. The movie juxtaposes this reality with quiet moments spent with members of the RBSS, exploring both their bravery and their fear. In one striking segment, Aziz breaks out a private collection of photographs and then tries to smoke a cigarette while he begins to involuntarily tremble. It all makes an unforgettable impact.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about City of Ghosts' violence. How does its impact compare to what you might seen in a fictional drama/thriller? Are some types of violence "better" than others?

  • What is the movie saying about the role of journalists/the press? How does the news affect kids?

  • How does the movie show the importance of courage? Why is that a key character strength?

  • Does the movie balance humanity and reporting? Do we learn who these people are? How or why?

  • What did you learn from this film that you didn't know before? Had you seen any of it on the news?

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