The historic cities of Raqqa and Aleppo have gained resonance in recent times, featuring regularly on newscasts, becoming synonymous with destruction and markers of the Syrian conflict.
Two films featured at the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto also focus on these cities, but as an attempt to humanise them beyond the headlines.
The first is City Of Ghosts, directed by Academy Award-nominated Matthew Heineman, which chronicles the group of citizen journalists Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently or RBSS.
RBSS smuggles out video footage and images from the Islamic State “capital” in an effort to counter the terrorist organisation’s slick propaganda. That effort has claimed some RBSS members and caused many to flee to Turkey and Europe, while several still remain to counter the IS narrative of urban utopia with horrifying images of brutality and of women and children clamouring for food.
RBSS was founded, Heineman said in an interview, to “shed light on this dark city that had been completely shut out from the rest of the world”. Atrocities abound — such as severed heads displayed at the city’s Paradise Square. RBSS spokesperson Aziz, now living in Germany, received a standing ovation at the premiere of the film in Toronto when he appeared on stage with Heineman.
As Heineman journeyed with the RBSS members in exile, his observational filming is augmented with footage that its members still in Raqqa, considered enemies by IS, are smuggling out. Thus, part of the film has “amazing footage coming out of Raqqa, of life under the Caliphate”, Heineman said.
The other, equally important, is the stress the members who have fled face, from their comrades and family members being executed by IS to being targets for assassination themselves.
“I think the film is obviously a megaphone for what they are doing with their work,” Heineman said.
City Of Ghosts is part of the Hot Docs section, Syria 360, that curates films about the conflict and its tangents, including the migration crisis in 69 Minutes Of 86 Days or the rise of ISIS in Europe in Recruiting For Jihad.
But a showcase film is Last Men In Aleppo. It features members of the White Helmets, a volunteer brigade that tries to rescue those trapped under the rubble left by bombing runs by fighter jets of the Assad regime or its Russian backers.
Directed by Feras Fayyad, who was born just outside Aleppo, the film begins with one White Helmet, Khaled, staring at the sky and saying, “(Syrian President) Bashar (al-Assad) keeps us looking up all the time; we can’t look down any more.”
This group tracks the bombings and rushes to the scene in an attempt to dig out those trapped under debris, often finding dead bodies of infants.
Fayyad, who did much of the filming himself, said in an interview, “Every frame, very second is like a tragedy.” His intent was to tell a story of civilian life. For that he used the tool he knew best, the camera: “It’s a personal film. It’s coming as a responsibility, of what I was seeing.”
And, obviously driven by characters like Khaled — “local, ordinary people who decide to take the responsibility of saving their families, their friends, to protect their neighbourhood. Their response to the heavy bombardment,” Fayyad said. Khaled is quite a character, his humour serving as a counterpoint to the devastation. “He is a symbol for love of life,” Fayyad said.
The film looks at the “motivation and inner conflict” of these volunteers. While news headlines dehumanise Aleppo as just a scene of ruin, Fayyad’s film populates it with real people living (and losing) real lives.