As the lights rose after the Sundance premiere of Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, the audience roared for the director. The cheering became even louder when his heroic protagonists joined him onstage, resulting in a standing ovation that lasted well into the Q&A session.

In addition to being extremely well-crafted, the film’s subject matter resonated with the Sundance audience of cinephiles, media-makers, and journalists. Following up on Heineman’s Sundance-winning and Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, City of Ghosts depicts the almost mind-boggling bravery of untrained journalists and witnesses who risked their own lives and suffered deep personal tragedies to document and share the truth behind ISIS’ violent rise in the small Syrian city of Raqaa—and to counter the media messages being sent out by the terrorist group.

The activities of the organization, called "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" (RBSS), are recounted using a seamless edit of brutally violent footage smuggled out of Raqaa, scant news coverage, ISIS propaganda videos,  and voiceovers culled from extensive interviews with Aziz, the group’s spokesperson, who acts at the film’s first-person narrator. Aziz and some other members of RBSS manage to escape Syria to continue the group's mission as friends and colleagues are slaughtered in their wake.

"Two years ago, I was filming vigilantes fighting Mexican drug cartels; this year, it's friends who banded together to fight ISIS."

Contributing to the film's power is the fact that the ISIS occupation of Syria is ongoing, and the lives of RBSS members are still under threat; the film implicates every viewer in complacency and inaction.

Heineman spoke with No Film School about how his process on City of Ghosts differed from that of Cartel Land,his commitment to one-man-banding the films, and how your camera should be a natural extension of yourself.

Matthew HeinemanDirector Matthew Heineman introduces the World Premiere of 'City of Ghosts' at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: © 2017 Sundance Institute | photo by Stephen Speckman.

No Film School: City of Ghosts seemed like a collaboration between you and its subjects. Who took on which roles?

Matthew Heineman: I don't know if I'd necessarily consider it a collaboration. There’s a director-subject relationship, and that is always a collaboration. Obviously, there was a collaboration in terms of them sharing their footage with us, but they weren't in the edit room. They were very much subjects of the film, and that was important to me. Obviously, they do their work, and then I'm documenting them doing their work.

NFS: How much of the footage did you shoot, and how much was theirs? 

Heineman: I shot all the vérité stuff with them in it. Then, the footage from inside Syria, I didn't shoot, so that's pretty much the clear delineation. I would be killed instantly if I went to Raqqa, so I wasn't particularly interested in that.

NFS: How did you actually obtain their material from inside Syria?

Heineman: They have various means of keeping their footage, and some of it's public, some of it not. It was obviously easy to access their public footage. Then there's specific footage that they've never released before that no one's ever seen, some of which was specific to this movie, that they got to us through secure means.

"I would be killed instantly if I went to Raqqa, so I wasn't particularly interested in that."

NFS: What about the narration? Did you and Aziz write that together?

Heineman: It's mostly interview. It's a sort of voice under, masquerading as VO. I guess that most people who watch it would see it as VO, but it's really just interview voice under.

I did the same thing with Cartel Land. I try to not show talking heads. I do a lot of interviews to get information that way, but I try to avoid that as much as possible. Most of it was from interviews with him. A few things didn't make sense, so we had to tweak and do pickups, but most of it was from interviews.

Cartel LandMatthew Heineman's 'Cartel Land'

NFS: How many interviews do you think you conducted?

Heineman: A lot. I mean, not 100, but maybe like 10, over time. One reason I like to interview a lot is just to not necessarily force people to be like, "So this is what happened a month ago." I want them to talk about it in real time as it's happening—any time the story progressed or things changed, getting the real emotion of that moment at that time. So, often I'll shoot vérité all day and experience a moment, and then make sure I have that in interview form.

NFS: So you have them sort of recount what happened, in case you need it later?

Heineman: Or, hopefully, better expound on what they're feeling, their emotions. In Cartel Land, so much of the drama was obvious. These vigilante characters were rising up to fight against this evil cartel, and it was in your face. It was visceral.

"When I find a story that I want to tell, I become absolutely obsessed by it. I can never stop thinking about it."

Whereas in this film, the drama was much more difficult to figure out. What is the drama? Where is the drama coming from? For me, so much of it was the interior dimension of these men coming to terms with the trauma that they had experienced over many years, over losing their friends, family members, being in exile. So that became one of the major sources of drama, for lack of a better word.

NFS: Yes, on one hand, these guys are so strong and brave; and on the other hand, there were moments when they were really vulnerable on camera. Did that come with trust over time, or were they always open with their emotions?

Heineman: For me, trust is everything, mainly to allow you to get those intimate moments. I don't want to give it away, obviously, but at the end of the movie, there's no way that scene would have happened if I'd just said, "Hello. Can I come hang out with you for a day?" That was built over months and months of trust, time, and care to be able to experience that intimate moment with our main character.

NFS: Tell me about your decision to leave in so much footage of graphic violence and executions.

Heineman: That was something that was heavily debated, considered, and thought through. Every single frame was discerned and talked about. In reality, on a scale of one to 10 in terms of the violence that happened, it is probably like a five. 

We were very conscientious of, on one hand, not wanting to turn people off, while on the other hand, wanting to acknowledge the reality of what these guys see and experience on a daily basis. So much of the film is about this war of ideas, this war of propaganda, this war of imagery, this information war. 

A huge part of that, from the ISIS point of view, is using and glorifying these killings, these beheadings as a way to instill fear, and in a sort of perverted way, to attract followers, as well. So to not show that would not be telling the truth. It would not be showing the reality of what's happening, so that was sort of my North Star.

City of Ghosts'City of Ghosts' protagonist Aziz speaks on stage at the film's Sundance world premiere.Credit: © 2017 Sundance Institute | photo by Abbey Hoekzema.

NFS: How, if at all, did working with these guys and documenting their story change anything about your own sense of responsibility as a documentarian?

Heineman: Hopefully, the film isn't like a "What are you doing with your life? You should go join the guys in Syria," type of message. I think, in a broader sense, journalism is under fire right now everywhere. Obviously, it’s the case in a big way in the US with the recent changes in our political system, and in an even broader sense, there's such little money being put into investigative journalism. Foreign bureaus are shrinking or being pulled all across the world, as you know. 

So this type of on-the-ground, in-the-war-zone journalism is so, so important, and sometimes the film is an homage to that, and to the importance of first-person testimony—which for the most part, in ISIS-controlled territories, has been relegated to either ISIS's own propaganda, which they control, or third-hand information.

What RBSS has done is provided a first-hand, on-the-ground window into life under ISIS, seeing the formation of ISIS, and the reality of life as it continues under the so-called caliphate.

"I used a C300 Mark II—no rig, totally bare bones—body with a shotgun mic mounted on the camera, and lavs on my subjects. I could shoot on that for eight hours straight without stopping."

NFS: Did hearing their stories change anything about the way you'll approach your own work in the future?

Heineman: Yes and no. I think everything you do in life influences your future actions. I mean not just, obviously, in filmmaking, but in your relationships. Your everyday life influences who you are and how you are as a filmmaker, and with each film, you grow and you learn. You make mistakes, and you move on from them. In that sense, yes. 

But: is this going to influence my next film? No. I think one of the things I love about documentary film is that every two years—however long it might be—you get to dive into a new world. Two years ago, I was filming vigilantes fighting Mexican drug cartels; this year, it's friends who banded together to fight ISIS.

Matthew Heineman's 'Cartel Land'Matthew Heineman's 'Cartel Land'

NFS: On that note, what advice do you have any advice for folks approaching their second, or third, or fourth film? 

Heineman: Each person has their own drive, their own motivations, and their own thing that makes them tick and get up in the morning. For me, when I find a story that I want to tell, I become absolutely obsessed by it. I can never stop thinking about it, and that's part of what I think made Cartel Land what it was and, hopefully, what made this film what it was. 

I guess my advice would be for people to find stories that motivate them, that make them scared, that make them moved, that make them think. Whatever it is, I think the most important thing is just to feel like you're doing something relevant and important.

NFS: What about the technical aspects of production? Are there things you've learned along the way?

Heineman: With my first film at Sundance, Escape Fire, it was much more of a traditional film, for lack of a better word—shot with a DP, and a sound person, and a crew, and a call sheet, and all that stuff. That was great and I'm super proud of that film, but through Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, for better or worse, I have fallen in love with one-man banding, and I think that's allowed me to get really intimate footage. It comes with not having a circus around you, but really forging those personal relationships, and being in that room alone with whomever it is.

"I have fallen in love with one-man banding. It's allowed me to get really intimate footage."

I think the other thing I've learned is about surrounding yourself with people that share your passion, your drive. I have the best crew and producers in the world, and it's a very similar team that worked on Cartel Land. I'm a big believer in "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," so I worked with the same composer, same editors, same color, same sound mixer. 

It just makes it so much easier because you already have that shorthand. They know what I want. They know what I'm going to expect out of them. They know what we're about to jump into. I love operating in an environment where anyone can say whatever they want. They can speak up. They can get upset, get passionate, get whatever. 

The collaboration is what makes filmmaking so exciting to me, and I couldn't make the film without the crew. It's each one of us leapfrogging each other to create this product that's ultimately what not any one of us alone could have made.

NFS: What's your setup when you're one-man banding it? What do you have with you?

Heineman: Nerdy-wise?

NFS: Nerdy-wise.

Heineman: For City of Ghosts, I used a C300 Mark II—no rig, totally bare bones—body with a shotgun mic mounted on the camera, and lavs on my subjects, fed into the camera. I'm a big believer in that camera. It’s incredible for its ergonomics, but also because it's so light. I could shoot on that camera for eight hours straight without stopping. I just love shooting with it. 

Matthew Heineman Cartel LandMatthew Heineman shooting 'Cartel Land'

Heineman: For me, I personally don't understand why you buy a camera like that and then build it out with shoulder rigs, and grips, and focus pulls, and all this stuff. It's like, buy a bigger camera. If you have this small body, use it for that. Hold it low. Hold it high. Hold it sideways. So that's my jam.

NFS: When people ask about what cameras to buy, we always advise them to test and see if it’s comfortable to use and if they can hold it for eight hours.

Heineman: Well, cameras are just tools, right? So, you have to know your tool. If you feel like you're operating with a tool, then you're not doing it right. Your camera should just be innately part of who you are in the same way you don't think about breathing, or blinking, or walking. You just do it. 

Before you start your film, really get familiar with how that camera works, how that technology works. I mean everything. If you're in the middle of a big scene, you don't want to be thinking about, "How do I change my f-stop?” or "How do I change my white balance?” If you want to go high speed or low speed, [you should be able to] quickly adapt to the situation. 

By far, the most important thing—whether you shoot on a Handycam or on an ALEXA—is knowing your equipment and having it be innately part of who you are and how you shoot.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.


No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.