Matthew Heineman has made a name for himself over the past few years hawking visceral documentaries in some of the world’s most harrowing war zones. In 2015, he brought Cartel Land to the screen, a story about drug smuggling and vigilantism that put the documentary filmmaker in the midst of fire fights and in the bellies of meth labs and torture chambers. He’s since set his sights on ISIS and a group called RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughter Silently), a guerrilla band of civilian journalists committed to exposing the horrors that have taken place since ISIS seized their hometown and made it into their de-facto capital. City of Ghosts follows the members of RBSS as they flee the omnipresent threat of ISIS, contend with the reality of their family’s being tortured and killed and still continue to do all they can to rally support against the terrorist organization dead set on dismantling everything they care about.
I spoke with Matthew about the challenges inherent with lensing a tragic Building trust with subjects so that they feel comfortable enough to emotionally expose themselves, putting himself constantly in the line of fire, his role as a quasi-war photographer and how counter programming may be the the only method to defeat ISIS.
I’d like to start by praising the film and saying how important it is but that has to be something that’s really hard to process. While there are people praising the film, the events that you’re documenting are so harrowing and still ongoing. How do you emotionally deal with that response?
Matthew Heineman: I think one of my goals with the film is really to put a human face to this issue which has largely been relegated to headlines and stats and policy pronouncements. I don’t think people viscerally and emotionally understand the conflict, at least here. And so one of my goals is to allow audience members to go on this journey and meet these characters from Syria who are risking their lives to expose the atrocities of what ISIS is doing. I started making this film initially because I was fascinated by what was happening. I was trying to see if there was a way to tell this story that makes sense. I eventually read this article in the New Yorker about this group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of friends who banded together to expose the atrocities that ISIS was committing in their hometown. Right when I read it, I knew this was the way to tell it.
How early on in their process of banding together did you get ahold of them and align to tell their story and make this into a documentary?
Matthew Heineman: They had been operating for well over a year before I reached out to them and started filming them. But I came at an interesting inflection point at the story of the group because after they banded together, ISIS started to kill members of their group and they were forced to flee and so when I started I knew that one of the main through lines of the film would be the exodus of Syria to Turkey and Turkey to Europe as they were being hunted by ISIS and as they were on the run and forced to flee. So I knew that that would be most likely the spine of the story. What I didn’t know is what the film would ultimately become. For me it’s much more than that, it’s about an immigrant story of finding oneself in a new land and about rising nationalism in Europe and trauma and the effects and trauma and media and journalism and this media war and propaganda war between RBSS and ISIS.
If you started the documentary about a year after they formed, it’s safe to assume that you personally were never able to enter Raqqa.
Matthew Heineman: I would be killed instantly.
Did you ever consider trying to get a guerilla film crew in there?
Matthew Heineman: It’s just not possible. The reason this group, RBSS, banded together is for that very reason. ISIS completely blacked out all information coming into and out of the city. There are no Western journalists who are there so that was never an option even if I wanted it to be. A big part of the story is the footage that these guys have captured and smuggled outside of the city to see life inside the capital of ISIS and see life inside the “caliphate” and the horrors and daily human rights violations that are committed there.
The members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently are dealing with not only the threat of death from ISIS but they are forced to contend with their families being captured and killed and it’s horrifying on so many levels and yet they stay the course. I think that’s something that film highlights so well, the resilience of spirit and will. Can you discuss how you broach something as heavy as their families being murdered with these guys?
Matthew Heineman: It was hard. But for me that’s what I try to do with my films is get these extraordinarily intimate moments. That doesn’t happen with just knocking on their door and hanging out with them for a day. It’s all about building trust, trust that’s built over months and months of filming. I became a part of the daily fabric of their lives. There are intimate moments of emotional revelation, of talking about their loved ones who have died, talking about their own fears and horrors that they’ve experienced. It was very, very difficult. Difficult for them to talk about, difficult for me to film, difficult to experience that but it was important. In that final scene in the movie, there is this extreme emotional intimacy and for me it’s when I knew that I had a film. So I stopped filming.
There’s this continued threat looming through the whole film – wherever they go, they are never safe. I wonder if you personally felt concerned that you might tangentially fall under the radar for ISIS as someone who is working closely with RBSS. Was your being targeted a concern?
Matthew Heineman: Whatever concerns that I have for myself pale in comparison to the true horrors that these guys live with every day. What they have lived through is unimaginable. Many of them have been arrested in the Assad regime, tortured by the Assad regime, arrested by ISIS, tortured by ISIS, had family members killed, friends killed, colleagues killed. They’re on the run now and being threatened by ISIS still so you know, it’s really unimaginable. What they live with is far greater than any fear that I have. Especially compared to the people in their group who are still in Raqqa and are in ISIS controlled territory, collecting information covertly, risking their lives to do so, and then disseminating that information to the group on the outside. These are the guys who are really in danger.
Through the last couple films you’ve made, with Cartel Land where you were reportedly shot at, and then this where you are only so many links away from ISIS, you’re proving to be quite a risk taker in terms of what situations you’re willing to put yourself in to tell a story. In a way, you’re a bit of a war photographer in that capacity. Is this an inherent choice that you’re making to tell these big, ballsy, risky stories and putting yourself on the front lines to do so?
Matthew Heineman: Well I’m not ever front and center in my films because don’t find myself interesting nor do I want to be a part of my films. This is not necessarily in my DNA. I didn’t grow up wanting to do this necessarily. I sort of stumbled into it, if you will. In the case of Cartel Land, I never could have imagined the places that I found myself in, shootouts in the streets of Mexico and meth labs and torture chambers. The violence was immediate and the violence was terribly frightening and it changed me forever. There’s not question. But I still had a blue passport that allowed me to come home and I was safe, for the most part, when I came home. City of Ghosts is different. I was never able to go to Raqqa so I was with these guys as they were on the run in safe houses hiding out. So the fear was less immediate, it was more omnipresent – the fear of ISIS – and in some ways that was more scary. I never saw the violence personally but I always felt it. It was a different kind of fear.
I know you’re not a politician but I wonder if being so close to this information campaign to take down ISIS, disseminating information that will hopefully eat away at their base and draw support away from what they’re doing by exposing said atrocities and human rights violations, and not from a policy stand point but what are your views in terms of the best method to defeat the kind of ideological warfare that ISIS is waging?
Matthew Heineman: I’m definitely not a politician nor an expert in these matters but as Aziz says in the film, “We’re not just fighting ISIS, we’re fighting the ideology of ISIS.” This ideology lives in a whole generation of children who have been indoctrinated by it and so how do you fight that? How do you defeat that? How do you fight these slick propaganda videos that ISIS has disseminated around the world? I think one way is doing what the men and women of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughted is doing, which is countering that through counter programming. Images and stories and videos that exposes the hypocrisy of ISIS’ messages and exposing the horrors of what they’ve done. So I think again that with the proliferation and democratization of technology and information, information, especially in these world of fake news and journalism under fire and truth seemingly being malleable, I think it’s so important to have people like RBSS who are fighting for the truth and are exposing the truth and that’s what we have to do.