U.S. presidential candidate Gary Johnson caused quite the stir in 2016 when he confessed to knowing nothing about the Syrian city of Aleppo on national TV. I guess foreign policy wasn't part of his platform.

While not quite living under a Gary Johnson-sized rock, I must admit to never hearing of Raqqa, a riverside city about 100 miles east of Aleppo, until I viewed director Matthew Heineman's latest effort, City of Ghosts. The film follows a group of citizen journalists under the unfortunately not-at-all-euphemistic banner of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

In 2013, amidst citizen-led protests throughout Syria, ISIS took over the city of Raqqa to quell the anti-government (and as ISIS would see it, anti-Allah protests). While ISIS upped their media game with professionally produced propaganda videos, showing Syrians flourishing under ISIS rule, a small group of Raqqa natives, mostly college-aged students, leaked what was really happening via horrific YouTube videos of assassinations and news stories from the ground onto the RBSS website.

Heineman, who set his lens on Mexican cartels in 2015's Cartel Land, once again gets uncomfortably close to the danger. The story of the atrocities happening in Raqqa are told via in-person interviews with masked correspondents still in Raqqa - even as ISIS destroys the citizens' satellites and thus their access to both TV and internet - and follows a core of journalists in safehouses in Turkey and Germany. And don't think those who fled Syria, are much safer, the journalists receive daily threats on Twitter, perhaps a photo of a journalist's home with the message "hope to catch you next time."

The most controversial aspect of City of Ghosts surely will be the age-old debate in war-based documentary journalism: exactly how much should you show? While Heineman's crew's own shots usually fade away before actual violence is shown, when the documentary is showing footage captured by RBSS themselves, it doesn't shy away from showing everything: decapitations, point-blank gunshots, even crucifixions. Indeed, as the journalist group's moniker suggests, Raqqa is being slaughtered, and they intend to let the world know. The discomfort the audience is sure to feel by the inclusion of such explicit images begs the question: Is it a privilege to be able to turn away?

But City of Ghosts also offers a glimmer of hope. From the safe houses throughout Europe, these young men, who were forced too soon into revolutionaries, seem to really believe the pen is mightier than the sword. The system of getting information out of Syria is sophisticated, including encryption, wiping hardware clean on a regular basis, and using codenames. It's apparently the way truth works in the 21st century, as a lot of the scenes following the team, feels a bit like Laura Poitra's Citizenfour, the 2014 Academy Award-winning documentary which followed Edward Snowden from undisclosed hotel room to hotel room. The group knows it can't stay put. But while they fear for their lives, there are also small wins as national news picks up their stories, often using RBSS's own photography and videos.

But unlike Citizenfour, where Snowden has been granted amnesty and can speak in a calm and collected way, the anxiety and fear is palpable in City of Ghosts. And to add to tensions, as RBSS spokeman Aziz Al-Hamza raises awareness at conferences throughout Germany in the U.S., protestors in Germany express their disdain for the refugees flooding in from Syria and Turkey.

Heineman isn't the type of director to turn the lens on himself, like Poitras sometimes does in Citizenfour or her more recent look at Julian Assange, 2017's Risk, but the director can sure craft a fine message. Because as much as the film is about the great work RBSS, it's also about the sheer amount of existential weight laying on the shoulders of these men at such a young age - for instance to get back at one RBSS videographer, ISIS captured his father, assassinated him, and then sent the son the video. By the time, we get to the film's end, it feels utterly ridiculous to use the words "refugee" and "lazy" in the same sentence. The documentary doesn't provide any answers, but by getting access to the grimmest of footage, it makes a very very strong plea for empathy. It's an uncomfortable watch, but if we choose to look elsewhere, Raqqa really will remain a city of ghosts.