Director: Jonathan Hacker
Cast: Samuel West, Tom Hollander
Watch Path of Blood online in the UK: iTunes / Amazon Instant Video
Directed – or, more accurately, assembled – by British filmmaker Jonathan Hacker, this harrowing, chilling and deeply depressing documentary intersperses home movies shot by Al-Qaeda foot soldiers with footage shot by Saudi Arabian security forces, to give a portrait of terrorist cells operating in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of 9/11. Featuring harrowing footage (viewers should be advised there are multiple shots of dead and mangled bodies) and sequences that range from utterly terrifying to blackly comic, this is frequently a difficult film to watch, but it remains an essential historical document, with something to say about the banality of evil and the way naïve young men are radicalised.
Presented without any form of editorialising other than terse factual narration by Samuel West (with Tom Hollander reading “the voice of Jihad”), the film sets out its stall early, with a series of out-takes as one smiling and giggling young man, referred to only as “Brother Ali”, repeatedly fails to understand the on-camera statement he’s supposed to be making and keeps getting distracted by his off-camera friends. The fact that the video is supposed to be about his impending martyrdom doesn’t seem to register with Ali at all.
This strain of naivety, ignorance and ineptitude is repeated throughout the film, to the point where it becomes weirdly reminiscent of the bumbling terrorists in Chris Morris’ Four Lions. On one occasion, we hear a radio conversation between two terrorists on their way to an attack and one sheepishly admits that his car has run out of petrol. (“Is it completely empty or is there a bit left?”) In another out-take, a man is preparing to record his obituary and is told, “keep the bandana – your hair looks amazing”.
On several occasions, the film shows footage of terrorists planning and even carrying out an attack, and then the film cuts to the Saudi Arabian security footage for the horrific aftermath. The contrast is striking, between these smiling, laughing young men, filming themselves having wheelbarrow races in the desert one minute and carrying out devastating attacks the next.
Similar contrasts are at play throughout the film. One scene, in particular, would be oddly sweet if it weren’t so chilling – as masked men practice somersaulting and pointing guns, they’re joined by two or three toddlers, also wearing masks, who do the same moves, with someone offscreen pointing out that they’re actually better at it. However, the idea that children are exposed to these horrors at an early age reaches a horrific peak in the film’s most frightening and disturbing scene: we see the torture and questioning of an American hostage (engineer Paul Marshall Johnson Jr.) before the screen goes black and we hear his horrific execution, which ends with a child’s voice saying “that’s my daddy’s knife”.
The lack of editorialising means that you’re essentially left in the dark as to the deeper reasons behind why these seemingly happy and cheerful young men turn so readily to death, destruction and their own martyrdom. Peer pressure undoubtedly plays a part, as does the presence of a charismatic recruitment figure, and the film forces you to think about their destructive effects. Ultimately, the film acknowledges both a high level of indoctrination and a general lack of education when it shows sequences of former terrorists being re-educated (or de-programmed) by the government, but the overwhelming impression you’re left with is that such measures aren’t nearly enough.