Jonathan Hacker’s feature documentary – made up of video uncovered by Saudi security forces during its war on terror in the 2000s – is sobering reconfirmation that Al Qaeda’s self-consuming pursuit has only a single, inescapable outcome for all, Muslim or non-Muslim.
The profoundly terrifying reality of Jonathan Hacker’s even-handed feature documentary Path of Blood is the reconfirmation of Al Qaeda’s belief that life is secondary to death. It means the suffering and carnage it manifests is devoid of a conscience most outsiders, or infidels, possess; a self-consuming pursuit with only a single, inescapable outcome for all, Muslim or non-Muslim.
A particularly difficult film to watch, its pain, its hate, its lack of humanity hitting you from all angles like the bullets sprayed with impunity from the terrorists’ Kalashnikovs. But at the same time it’s a compelling document of the fight against both a physical and ideological enemy and the inner workings of such a foe.
Captured by Saudi Arabian security forces between around 2003 and 2009 are countless hours of videotape recorded by Al Qaeda terror cells – video not meant for the world to see – and it is this that presents an intimate portrayal of some of Osama Bin Laden’s devout followers. Director Hacker’s lid-lifting exercise might not reveal anything that we didn’t already superficially know but its footage from inside the belly of the beast presents a unique point of view on Islamic fundamentalism and its militarised wings.
Path of Blood’s focus is framed – with the help of Samuel West’s minimalist narration – around the jihadist threat to Saudi Arabia (its governmental infrastructure as well as its foreign workers and agencies), from the early to late 2000s. Security force footage, regional news, and Al Qaeda’s own videos detail preparations to bomb targets, weapons training, the Saudi’s response, and the aftermath of bombings, house sieges and strategic raids.
What’s particularly chilling is the pre-suicide interviews Al Qaeda operatives filmed with their brainwashed bombers. Young, angry men indoctrinated with the belief that death is far more desirable than life are shown to have a limited awareness beyond that of their myopic ideology; there’s an infantile ignorance on display that’s doubly unsettling when you consider their objectives are supported by a cache of heavy-duty weaponry.
Hacker, rightly, doesn’t hold back. The deaths of children, their lifeless bodies pulled from the ruins of a bombed building, hurt as much as they anger. Likewise, the footage of murdered American Paul Marshall Johnson Jr. prior to his killing will make some viewers feel physically sick. That’s also the most likely reaction to an Al Qaeda suicide bomber who secretes a hand grenade in his rectum in order to target a government official inside his own high security compound. The bomb is detonated by mobile phone, ultimately decimating the would-be killer but surprisingly leaving his target – who he was stood next to – with only minor injuries.
Executive produced by Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal, Hacker’s film, while maintaining a refreshing objectivity, is edited together with the structure and suspense Boal afforded his most well-known screenplays. That it works so well as a chronological story is testament to the painstaking work behind the scenes to develop a narrative that has a defined beginning, middle and end. Credit must go to the film’s editors, led by Peter Haddon, as well to the Saudi security forces whose courageous determination to stifle Al Qaeda’s threat unearthed all this material.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Jonathan Hacker
Written by: Jonathan Hacker
Starring: Samuel West
Released: 2018 / Genre: Documentary
Country: UK / IMDB
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Path of Blood is available on DVD from December 10.