Sundance turns lens on Syria war, terrorism

While the IS paints a picture of a prosperous Syrian city of Raqa, a group of citizen journalists has been able to capture the shocking brutality of everyday life in the city of one million.  

Frankie Taggart –

In early 2014, the IS group entered the northern Syrian city of Raqa, declaring it its capital and beginning a reign of terror marked by grisly public executions.
Armed police patrolled the streets as “enemies” of the regime were crucified or decapitated, their severed heads impaled on spikes in the city square.
Student Abdalaziz Alhamza and his friends decided to form Raqa is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS), a band of courageous citizen journalists who risk their lives to document IS atrocities.
Their work is chronicled in City of Ghosts, by Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman, one of a raft of films on conflict and terror in the Middle East that premiered this week at the annual Sundance Film Festival.
“So often in documentaries, subjects become caricatures of whatever they’re doing in life. For me, that’s not very interesting,” Heineman, 33, said.
“I very much wanted to spend as much time as possible to understand who these guys are, what makes them tick, what are their emotions, feelings and thoughts.
While IS paints a picture of a fully functioning, prosperous city, RBSS has been able to capture the shocking brutality of everyday life in the city of one million.
Following a lightning offensive in which IS was accused of numerous atrocities, the group declared its caliphate stretching from northern Syria to parts of eastern Iraq in June 2014.
Alhamza, 25, first encountered the group when a masked man with a Saudi accent burst into his university and recruited one of his friends, who later turned up dead.
RBSS documents the atrocities committed daily by the extremists on camera phones, smuggling encrypted footage via the Internet to Alhamza and his fellow exiles, who disseminate it via social media.
Heineman was touring America with his Oscar-nominated 2015 Mexican drug trade documentary Cartel Land as the plight of Syrians was becoming a near-daily part of the news cycle.
He began researching the conflict extensively and came across RBSS in the fall of 2015, and was struck by the sacrifices its members had made.
He decided early on that he wanted the core of the story to be deeply personal “verite” footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members by IS fighters.
Heineman’s story starts in Raqa but evolves into a rare human take on Europe’s migrant crisis.
Elsewhere at Sundance, Last Men in Aleppo, a documentary on the Syrian city’s ‘White Helmet’ first responders, also got its premiere.
A collaboration between Syrian filmmaker Firas Fayyad, Danish filmmaker Steen Johannessen, and the Aleppo Media Center, it follows three reluctant heroes who rush toward bomb sites while others run away.
Cries from Syria, a third film on the crisis making its debut, tells how the country’s people, inspired by events in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, rose up against the dictatorial rule of President Bashar al Assad.
The IS’s influence has spread far beyond the Middle East, and last week the festival screened a startling film about the kidnapping of 276 girls from the Nigerian town of Chibok by IS-affiliated militants Boko Haram.
Short film Waiting for Hassana, by Funa Maduka, tells the story of abductions from the perspective of one of 57 girls who managed to escape. — AFP