By Valentina Valentini
PARK CITY, UTAH – Filmmaker Matthew Heineman has seen a lot of success in the past two years. His previous feature documentary, Cartel Land, got him Academy Award–nominated, won him an Emmy and earned him the 2015 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award for documentary features and a Special Jury Prize for Cinematography.
This year, he’s back at Sundance with City of Ghosts, a powerful cinematic experience that follows the journey of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) – a handful of anonymous activists and unwitting journalists who banded together after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014 on a mission to get their stories out to the world undercover, on the run and in exile, risking their lives to stand up against one of the great evils in the world today.
“I almost obsessively started reading about [ISIS] and the phenomenon that surrounds them,” Heineman told an audience at the Canon Creative Studio panel over the weekend at Sundance. He ended up going down some false leads looking for a way into the story – and had previously been wanting to shoot a documentary about it. But it wasn’t until he read the article in the New Yorker by David Remnick about the group that things fully formed for him.
“I knew that was my way into it – a humane way.”
I just want to keep making films that matter – that matter to me, hopefully that matter to the world. If you’re not intellectually and emotionally attached to what you’re doing, I don’t see how you can devote that much time and energy to something. It’s so hard to make a documentary.” – Matthew Heineman
It was during his work on Cartel Land that the plight of Syria was becoming a near daily part of the global news cycle, and in the fall of 2015, Heineman read that article about RBSS and knew their story could provide an intimate, character-driven window into life under ISIS.
“I made contact with members of RBSS,” he says in a statement about the film, “attempted to gain their trust and soon began filming with them. I knew almost immediately that I wanted the spine of the story to be deeply personal verité footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members by ISIS. I followed them in Turkey and then eventually to Europe as ISIS continued to threaten them.”
Heineman wanted to juxtapose this present day journey with the dramatic footage they had captured, and were continuing to capture, inside Raqqa. Since ISIS took over the city in March 2014, journalists have been unable to enter the region, allowing the caliphate to control the narrative of what was happening inside the city with its slick propaganda videos. So, RBSS’s footage – including some that have never been released – provides a unique, up-close and visceral window into daily life in Raqqa.
“As someone who not only directs, but also shoots and edits as well, I don’t have to wait for funding,” Heineman said during his Canon presentation. “I can just jump right into a story.”
Heineman admits he was being slightly provocative when he said that, but reiterates that it can actually be that simple: “If the story is happening, I don’t have to go hire a DP, a sound [person and other crew] before shooting. This is what I did with Cartel Land and this is what I did with City of Ghosts. For other directors who don’t shoot or do sound, it takes a certain amount of money to gather those resources. I’m lucky in that sense.”
After the notoriety and success of Cartel Land, it would be remiss of anyone in the biz to turn down his next project, and Heineman understands how lucky he is to be in that position now.
“I didn’t have that for many years and I struggled [to get funding],” he told realscreen in a telephone interview. But once his mind was made up about City of Ghosts, he jumped into shooting right away.
“I got a few shoots under my belt, enough to cut together a little teaser and sent that to Molly Thompson at A&E IndieFilms who supported Cartel Land. They greenlit it pretty quickly to allow us to dig deeper into shooting. Then investors came on board [to finish the funding].”
Over the year that Heineman spent with the group, it became apparent that the story was even bigger in scope than the chronicles of RBSS versus ISIS.
“The more I shot with them,” he said, “the more the story twisted and turned into one that also touched on the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood and one’s haunting relationship with trauma.”
As City of Ghosts gets wrapped up in sales talks at Sundance (as of Tuesday night), Heineman is not thinking about topping the successes of Cartel Land.
“I don’t think about stuff like that,” he said. “I love Cartel Land. I love City of Ghosts. They’re my babies. I just want to keep making films that matter – that matter to me, hopefully that matter to the world. If you’re not intellectually and emotionally attached to what you’re doing, I don’t see how you can devote that much time and energy to something. It’s so hard to make a documentary.”