“I can’t deal with anything without smoking cigarettes. First thing I need to do before an interview, I need to smoke a cigarette to be able to focus.”
Given the dangerous, courageous life he has led, it is not surprising to hear such words from Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza — known as “Aziz” — one of the subjects of Matthew Heineman’s shocking, bracing new documentary “City of Ghosts.” The film, opening Friday at the E Street Cinema, follows a group of journalists from Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s self-styled capital, who dare to buck the narrative that the terror army has been spreading as to what a paradise they have founded.
Mr. al-Hamza and his compatriots found the Facebook group “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) for which they filed reports first on the ground in Syria and then, when things get too hot, from Turkey and, later, Germany.
“This ideology that they’ve disseminated across the world has indoctrinated a whole section of people, and especially the younger generation. So how do you fight that?” said Matthew Heineman, the director of “City of Ghosts.” “How do you combat that extremist ideology that bombs will not fix? I think the RBSS is one step to put a dent in that.
“I really wanted to put a human face to the subject,” Mr. Heineman said, so that “audience members will have a greater sense of empathy for what they’ve been through.”
In one of the doc’s most excruciating scenes, after months of threats from ISIS and fleeing from one country to the next — including to Germany, where they are met with a nativist backlash — Mr. al-Hamza is seen smoking nervously, his entire body wracked with the terror that around seemingly every corner is someone who wishes to kill him, to stop the truth-telling.
It is one of the film’s most truly humanistic moments.
“One of my goals is to crack beneath the surface of the stoicism with which they normally carry themselves,” Mr. Heineman said of his subjects. “It became an immigrant story, a story of finding oneself in a new land. And that’s one of the things I love about making a film like this is that you don’t even know where it’s going to go.”
One of the threads that did emerge, he said, was the “cumulative effect of trauma.”
Seated next to his director, Mr. al-Hamsa still has about him the nervous energy of someone who has experienced far too many sleepless nights, and who has lived in safety knowing that friends, family and colleagues have been targeted and tortured back in his homeland for smuggling reports out of the war-torn country.
He also has the air of someone who hasn’t had a smoke in more than a few minutes.
“I’m optimistic,” Mr. al-Hamsa says. “I’m Syrian, and when I see many Syrian people demonstrating in Syria … I consider it a resolution to our conflict. So I do believe that the change will come one day,” he says.
“I have huge hope that peace will come one day.”
• Eric Althoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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