BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. In recent weeks, ISIS has been under attack in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, in particular, Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the so-called “caliphate.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Islamic State is hemmed in here, always surrounded, and they’re fighting back.
[SOUND OF GUNFIRE]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It’s getting ugly for ISIS here. They’ve moved their prisoners out, top commanders have fled. Their lieutenants only drive around in low-profile normal cars. Their enemy is literally at the gates, ISIS’s world vanishing fast.
BOB GARFIELD: The citizens of Raqqa have long borne the brunt of ISIS terror, but we don't hear their stories because our journalists can't get there. Raqqa is being slaughtered silently. It's a tragic fact and also the name of a group of citizen journalists who risked their lives to break that silence, to show the world how the people of Raqqa are oppressed and murdered under the world's radar. Anonymous members of the group inside the city sacrifice themselves to smuggle photos, videos and stories to their comrades who have fled to Turkey, Germany and elsewhere.
Matthew Heineman is the director of City of Ghosts, a new documentary that tells the story of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. Abdel Aziz al-Hamza is co-founder and spokesman for the group, which we will refer to as RBSS. Aziz said it didn’t take long for its members to fall under the guns of ISIS.
ABDEL AZIZ AL-HAMZA: Two weeks after we started our organization, ISIS announced in the mosques that everyone who is working with RBSS should be executed. A month after we started, they arrested one of our colleagues and later on he was executed. Thousands of people were arrested because they just posted on our Facebook page. Later on, they arrested the father of my colleagues and the cofounder of RBSS and then they texted us either to give the names of three of our colleagues or they will kill the father. And later on, they started to target us in Turkey and even like outside Syria. All of us are threatened wherever we are.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s kind of astonishing, considering the threat that you are under, Aziz, to let a third party in to film your operations from the inside. Why?
ABDEL AZIZ AL-HAMZA: Before meeting Matt, we were not planning to do any movie or any documentary because of security. But later on, we knew that doing this documentary will help us to spread our message out, to reach thousands and millions of people to educate them about what’s going on in Raqqa. So that was like more important than our security.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matt, you are an able filmmaker and a genius at obtaining access. In your last film, Cartel Land, you somehow managed to get inside of both a drug cartel and a anti-drug cartel organization and a militia group on the US side of the border, all of whom were people who were operating, let’s just say, extra legally. Now, you were inside RBSS. You, obviously, were not in Raqqa. You had to figure out another way to tell the story of what the group's members were doing within.
MATTHEW HEINEMAN: My idea was that the spine of the film would be this exodus from Syria to Turkey and Turkey, ultimately, to Europe, as members of RBSS were forced to flee. I also knew that, you know, I wanted to show life inside Raqqa. However, you know, I was not able to go to Raqqa; I would be killed instantly. It was a very difficult exercise for me as a filmmaker because in all my films have been footage that I’ve shot. And so, here, you know, there’s a lot of negotiating on how to get the footage out of Raqqa, obviously, using archival footage. We also used some footage from ISIS, themselves, through various websites that track and monitor terrorist groups like ISIS. And then we also subscribed, if you will, [LAUGHS] to some ISIS channels on the dark web and other places to receive contents that they were disseminating every single day.
BOB GARFIELD: And some of the footage is just horrifying, a lot of supposed infidels or traitors being shot to death, just executed summarily –
[SOUNDS OF MAN SPEAKING, GUNSHOTS/CROWD SHOUTS/UP & UNDER]
- in public places by ISIS forces. How do you know when the graphic violence is too much?
MATTHEW HEINEMAN: It was – it was tough. I didn't want to shy away from the reality of what was happening in Raqqa. I didn’t want to shy away from the horrors that the citizens of Raqqa, you know, are experiencing every single day. And I think to shy away from it would be doing an injustice to their experience. At the same time, we didn’t want people to run out of movie theaters or turn off their TVs, or however people watch movies these days. And so, you know, it was very much a balancing act in the edit room.
BOB GARFIELD: Aziz, at, at least as horrifying were the images of you and your colleagues in Turkey or in Germany in exile, contemplating what the future holds for you. As one after another of your friends is assassinated, we watch you coming to terms with the realization that your chances of surviving in the, the long term are just not good.
ABDEL AZIZ AL-HAMZA: When my colleagues and I started RBSS, we knew that in any second, in any moment, we will be caught and doing this movie might increase the risk every single second. But it was not our first experience. All of us were arrested by the Syrian regime, all of us used to be activists during the Syrian revolution. Personally, I got arrested three times, I – and I was tortured, and I was lucky to be released. For me, personally, I believe that I would be – die one day, so I don't care if it’s tomorrow, after a week, after a year.
MATTHEW HEINEMAN: You know, these guys had, had all been through more than any of us could ever imagine, arrested and tortured by the Assad regime, arrested and tortured by ISIS. Family members, colleagues, friends were killed by ISIS, many of them being forced to flee, continuing to get death threats, just unimaginable. To some degree, this film was really about trauma, and so it was key for me to try to scratch beneath the veneer of, of stoicism to see what, you know, what effect this was really having on them. And, obviously, that final scene in the film is a crescendo of that, where we really see Aziz lay himself bare.
BOB GARFIELD: There is one scene in the film which is separate from the rest. It was a rally in Germany of anti-immigrant protesters.
[RALLY SOUNDTRACK/MAN TALKING, CROWD HUBBUB]
ABDEL AZIZ AL-HAMZA: The problem was that I couldn’t stay or like keep silent, so I'm the one who used to demonstrate, to protest, to fight against the Syrian regime, against ISIS. So I couldn’t just stay home doing nothing, so I decided just to go to the street to demonstrate against them.
And then I was able to sit with some of them and have a conversation. Most of them, they don’t know about what’s going on in Syria. They are listening to whatever this leader told them. And their problem is not only about refugees, it’s about everyone who’s not a real native German, as they said. Those people are like missing educations.
MATTHEW HEINEMAN: As Aziz said, ISIS said, you're not Muslim, get out of the caliphate, you’re not one of us. And then he arrives in Germany and then suddenly he's labeled as a terrorist. There’s many reasons that the scene’s in the film but part of it is, is that [LAUGHS] Aziz has this fire burning inside of him and even in the streets of Berlin he's continuing to fight for what he believes in.
BOB GARFIELD: Because this is a proxy war, it seems so intractable. You and your colleagues are in enormous danger, presumably for the rest of your lives. It, it makes me wonder whether the sacrifice has been worth it.
ABDEL AZIZ AL-HAMZA: A hundred percent. For us, all of us, we were a group of young friends whose ages are between 18 and 28, and we were able to make a change in the international community, international media. And when we see ISIS are targeting us because we are affecting them, we know that we are winning and somehow we feel like we’ve done like a victory for our country, for our city, and we were able like to have a heard voice everywhere. And I’m sure the history will talk about us.
BOB GARFIELD: I wish you and your colleagues nothing but the best.
ABDEL AZIZ AL-HAMZA: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Abdel Aziz al-Hamza is a co-founder and spokesman for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. Matthew Heineman is the director of City of Ghosts, a new documentary about the citizen journalist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.
MATTHEW HEINEMAN: Can I say one thing that you can feel free to throw in the trash can?
BOB GARFIELD: Sure.
MATTHEW HEINEMAN: I think, you know, I, I made this film for many, many reasons but partly, you know, it’s an homage to journalism in this world where truth seems to be malleable. I think it’s so important to seek out and celebrate individuals who are risking their lives for the truth, and I can’t think of a much better example than the members of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently who’ve literally risked everything to shed light on this dark corner of the world.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
I think it’s really important to recognize the amazing work of citizen journalists, really, all around the world who are filling a void where traditional media has been unable either to go there or doesn’t have the resources to be there.