Based upon the book of the same name published in 2014, Jonathan Hacker’s Path of Blood is a startling, powerful experience. Cut from unprecedented access to 500 hours of jihadi footage, this extraordinary documentary covers the breadth of Al Qaeda’s campaign in Saudi Arabia, from 2003 to 2009. Pulling no punches, it is not for the faint of heart; the titular blood is very, very real.
The film opens with the outtakes from a suicide video will. Ali, the driver for the next mission, is distracted and made to laugh by his masked comrades; aside from their brandished weaponry, this could be any group of young men, not taking the task at hand seriously, more keen on cracking jokes. It feels a bizarre scene for what we know is to be a serious documentary, but it signals Path of Blood’s intentions from the off, which is to capture the complexity of the individual; these terrorists are ordinary but corrupted human beings. And, Ali typifies the average suicide mission recruit: not the sharpest knife in the drawer, with a lack of religious education. As it slowly dawns on him that he is about to die, he is visibly nervous.
“What do you think of my sparkly gun?”
“It’s lovely. May it serve God.”
Entirely archive driven, Path of Blood’s coup is the Al Qaeda members’ amateur home videos. Seized by government officials, the footage is an astonishing, intimate look at their training and planning, as behind-the-scenes as is possible. The group’s professional propaganda videos drive the narrative as the timeline unfolds, complemented by excerpts read from the Voice of Jihad journal, lest we forget their bloodthirsty objective, while Saudi forces’ live-action footage provides a stark sense of the war on innocent people. These strands are punctuated by video noise, with just a bare-boned commentary.
The result is a multi-faceted, fascinating portrait of the Al Qaeda recruits. Such is their playfulness and occasional idiocy, Chris Morris’ Four Lions is brought to mind, which makes the brutality all the more chilling. A scene in which a captured American is interrogated is particularly harrowing. The screen blacks out to spare us his torture but the sound remains, a child’s voice concluding: “That’s my daddy’s knife.”
Hacker’s intention was an objective documentary that allows the audience to make its own conclusions, and, he succeeds; Path of Blood entirely lacks a Western prism, its minimal commentary merely relaying the facts of the events, while the differing archival strands are well balanced. What is likely universal, however, is a sense of hopelessness. In Hacker’s words: “Terrorism has not gone away. It has a potent ideology, and there are always going to be young, vulnerable people who are prone to these kinds of ideas. Just when you think you’ve defeated it in one place, it has an uncanny habit of reappearing in another.”
Path of Blood opens on 13 July