True heroism in ‘City of Ghosts’ – Guzman, Olmas to star in ‘Windows on the World’

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So-called heroes sling into action just about every weekend of the summer movie season, but if you want to see the genuine article, you’ll have to make your way to “City of Ghosts”, Matthew Heineman’s documentary about the Syrian citizen journalist collective of Raqqa.

Raqqa, the provincial Eastern Syrian city on the banks of the Euphrates, has for the last three years been the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The city first drew militants in the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but in the revolution’s wake, IS set up camp. Black flags overran the city, as did beheadings, crucifixions and torture.

It has been one of the most impossible places on Earth to practice daily life, let alone journalism. And yet it was here that one of the more inspiring tales of citizen reporting was born with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS. They’re a small group of mostly anonymous Raqqa residents who became activists, risking and sometimes losing their lives while reporting from the heart of IS darkness.

Heineman, the director of the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land”, has the good sense to let RBSS leaders tell their own story, making for a bracingly intimate, heartbreaking and ultimately stirring window into the tragedy of modern Syria.

They are mostly young, previously unpolitical men who found the courage to resist when the Islamic State, or ISIS, began terrorizing their home city. They are armed with nothing more than a hashtag and a logo featuring a splash of blood, but RBSS became a vital resource for news inside Raqqa for media outlets around the world.

“We punctured a hole in the darkness”, Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza, the 25-year-old co-founder, narrates.

For the media-savvy Islamic State, who made slickly produced videos of their atrocities their trademark recruitment tool, RBSS is more than a nuisance. It’s a threat to its PR of savagery. Stealthily, the citizen reporters get out news, video and sometimes embarrassing details of IS on social media.

The risk is extreme. One reporter named Moutaz is captured, tortured and shot in public. Other volunteers are assassinated. Their teacher, Naji Jerf, is hunted down on the streets in Turkey. Even their families are in danger. The cameraman Hamoud’s father is taken and shot on video. In one of the film’s most agonizing moments, Heineman films Hamoud watching the video. He is shaken but remains resolute in his cause.

Several of the group’s leaders flee to Germany and Turkey, but continue to report remotely via anonymous reporters and sources in Raqqa. Much of the footage shot by Heineman comes from his time in their European safe houses or being celebrated by the Committee to Protect Journalists with the 2015 Press Freedom Award.

In this way, “City of Ghosts” narrows in scope just when it should expanding. Its second half is unable to keep pace with the wider story of IS, or to maintain its close-up of Raqaa. That’s surely somewhat inevitable considering the prohibitive violence in the city. But Heineman, whose “Cartel Land” intrepidly plunged into vigilante groups along the US-Mexico border, appears more at home on the battlefield than distant from the action.


Still, the heroism on display in “City of Ghosts” is unforgettable, and the film remains an ever-essential reminder of the high costs and vital necessity of journalism in this — or any — fight against evil.

This week, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by air strikes by the US-led coalition, breached the old city walls of Raqqa. There are growing hopes the Islamic State will soon be pushed out of its first stronghold. But, as RBSS and others has cautioned, civilian casualties have been high and the fighting goes on.

“City of Ghosts”, an Amazon Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “disturbing violent content, and for some language”. Running time: 92 minutes. Three stars out of four.


LOS ANGELES: Ryan Guzman and Edward James Olmos are starring in the feature film “Windows on the World”, a father-son drama about the aftermath of 9/11, Variety has learned exclusively.

Shooting will begin on July 10 in Mexico and New York City. Olmos’ son Michael D. Olmos will direct from a script by Robert Mailer Anderson and Zack Anderson.

Robert Mailer Anderson and Vicangelo Bulluck are producing. “Windows on the World” will start in Mexico, where a man watches the news on Sept 11, 2001, with his family and travels to New York City to find his father, who was working on the top floor of the Twin Towers. The Windows on the World venues were on the top floors of the North Tower.

Guzman broke into the business in “Step Up: Revolution” and “Step Up All In”, then starred in “The Boy Next Door” with Jennifer Lopez, “Jem and the Holograms”, and in Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some”.

Edward James Olmos broke out in 1981’s “Zoot Suit” and 1982’s “Blade Runner”. He was nominated for a best actor Academy Award for “Stand and Deliver” and starred in the series “Battlestar Galactica” and “Miami Vice”. He is reprising his role as Gaff in the upcoming “Blade Runner 2049”.

Michael D. Olmos has directing credits on “Filly Brown”, “The Green Ghost”, and “Bedrooms”. Bulluck is a longtime executive producer of the NAACP Image Awards.

LONDON: The final film in the rebooted “Planet of the Apes” series will hit cinemas next week, promising an action-packed conclusion to a trilogy that has garnered both critical acclaim and box office receipts.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” sees motion-capture performance specialist Andy Serkis return in his role as Caesar, leader of a super-intelligent band of apes who take on an army led by Woody Harrelson’s ruthless colonel in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Serkis said the conflict between apes and humans at the film’s core was a warning against supremacist ideologies.

“If you think your species is better, if you think your type of people or your type of religion or anything that your set of beliefs is better than someone else’s, then that is the road to ruin”, he said.

Serkis’s on-screen antagonist Harrelson, who has experience in dystopian cinema from his role in the “Hunger Games” films, said that he had been a fan of the renewed series before being asked to appear in it.

“It was a privilege to be asked to do it. I don’t think it’s that I’m drawn to that (dark sci-fi films), I’m just drawn — some things make sense. Some things you can’t say no to”.

“War” follows on from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, and is to be the final instalment of this series, but not the end of the franchise altogether, said the film’s director and co-writer Matt Reeves. (Agencies)

By Jake Coyle



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