Matthew Heineman has gained a reputation for his eye-opening documentaries, and City of Ghosts is no exception. His latest work takes a look at local journalists who put their lives on the line to cover ISIS atrocities in the besieged city of Raqqa.
Heineman says that his inspiration for the documentary first came from an article he read in The New Yorker, “Telling the Truth About ISIS and Raqqa,” which recounted the vital operations of RBSS (Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered), an underground group of journalists who smuggled out firsthand footage and accounts of ISIS crimes to international news stations. He said that it was “really emotional” to get footage that someone risked their life for, and that this often made him feel conflicted about making his film. At the same time, he believed it was important to create a documentary that emphasized the necessity of journalism in an age where it has become ubiquitous, derivative, and banal, reducing even the greatest horrors to a daily news feed. “The importance of first-hand accounts, especially as journalism, is under attack,” Heineman said. He calls his film an “an homage to the importance of truth seeking and truth telling.”
Heineman’s fascination with the non-fiction form began in college, when he majored in history. He had actually wanted to be a teacher, but when he was rejected by Teach for America, his life, serendipitously, took another path. He took a road-trip with some friends the summer after college, and, interested in finding out “what today’s generation was all about” he decided to film and interview locals as they drove along. The footage he accumulated – though rough and unpolished – furnished the material for his first documentary film, Our Time. He failed to get it produced by HBO, but there was an upside: the network took him under its wing and put him to work on a new series, The Alzheimer’s Project, a four-part documentary that looks at the symptoms, causes, and yet-to-be discovered cure for this disorder that has affected millions.
Having delved into the complex realm of healthcare while making The Alzheimer’s Project, Heineman would continue down this path with Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, which he co-directed with his mentor at HBO, Susan Froemke. The film not only delivers a call to action to change the current system, but also offers solutions to shift the focus from high-cost post-illness interventions to preventive care. “We wanted to make a film that highlighted not just problems but also solutions,” said Heineman. “Too many documentaries leave you feeling depressed.”
Escape Fire took its inspiration from a healthcare speech given by Dr. Donald Berwick before he headed Medicare, which was published under the title, “Escape Fire: Lessons for the Future of Healthcare.” The seemingly odd title of the speech and film refers to the practice of battling wildfires by burning patches of land in advance so that the approaching fire will move around it – a metaphor, in this context, for the strategic necessity of preventive care. Heineman’s healthcare documentary received overwhelming critical praise, and won several awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the Full Frame Human Rights Award, the Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Filmmaking, and the Silverdocs Social Issue Award.
For his next documentary project, Heineman turned to the rampant issue of drug trafficking along the Mexican border, another intransigent crisis that has dominated both political coverage and the world of entertainment with Narcos, Sicario and The Infiltrator. Heineman takes an interesting approach, constructing a parallel narrative that follows two groups of guerilla fighters trying to bring down drug lords on either side of the border. Far from considering the problem from a didactic standpoint, Heineman plunges into the anarchy and moral messiness of the situation. “I wanted to tackle huge, complicated subjects — vigilantism, border security, the drug war — but in a far more personal and targeted way, through the eyes of the compelling and deeply complex individuals at the heart of these vigilante movements,” Heineman said. He said that sometimes, there is “so much killing, you don’t know if you’re with the good guys or the bad guys.”
Indiewire saw this as one of the documentary’s strongpoints, praising Heineman for very realistically blurring the line “between obeying the law and staying alive.” The aesthetic quality of the film was praised by Variety Magazine, a clear sign that Heineman had come along way from his guerrilla filmmaking days. With Cartel Land, Heineman outdid his previous film, winning three Primetime Emmy Awards and the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary Award from the Director’s Guild of America , and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Heineman was even included in Foreign Policy Magazine’s list of top 100 global thinkers in 2015.
With a solid repertoire of documentaries under his belt, we’ll see what Heineman tackles next. Whatever he does, Heineman always manages to open our eyes and consider his subjects from a strongly measured point of view, while never sacrificing the human element.