Review – Al Qaeda doc ‘Path of Blood’ is chilling in its normality

Poster for 2018 terrorism documentary Path of Blood

Genre: Documentary
Certificate: 18
UK Release Date: 13th July 2018
Runtime: 91 minutes
Director: Jonathan Hacker
Writer: Jonathan Hacker
Starring: Samuel West, Tom Hollander
Synopsis: Using footage released by the Saudi authorities, as well as previously unseen Al Qaeda home videos, this documentary gives a shocking glimpse into the human beings behind the atrocities carried out by the notorious group.

 

 

It’s not often that a documentary film could cite a number of Al Qaeda members as its cinematographers. That, however, is the case with Path of Blood, which mostly consists of a patchwork of home videos shot by Al Qaeda terrorists themselves and the Saudi security forces trying to thwart their attacks. Director Jonathan Hacker and his team sifted through 500 hours of footage in total, having negotiated with security services head Prince Muhammad bin Nayef in order to get hold of the material. The result is a bracing, sickening hour and a half of cinema that pulls no punches in depicting the chilling mundanity behind the extraordinary evil of Al Qaeda terrorists.

Hacker resists the temptation to editorialise, or add talking heads to communicate the politics behind everything that’s happening. Brief, explanatory voiceover from Samuel West is enough to contextualise the action and there are extracts from Al Qaeda magazine Voice of Jihad read with terrifying gravitas by Tom Hollander. The most shocking segments of the film, though, deal with young Al Qaeda fighter Ali. Much like the British soldiers on the beaches in Dunkirk, there’s something immediately harrowing about seeing someone so clearly young putting themselves right in the firing line.

Path of Blood finds its purpose in sequences like this one, focusing not on the unthinkable atrocities (“there’s no face, just write female child”) but on the mundane existence of these people between the actions for which they are known. There are scenes of Al Qaeda members cracking jokes, fluffing their lines in jihadi videos, larking around on campsites and even suffering a bizarre, calamitous series of technical mishaps en route to an attack. When you think of terrorists, you don’t think of absent-minded fools who forget to put enough petrol in their car.

There is, however, something of a lack of focus to Path of Blood. Hacker’s movie has moments of razor-sharp intensity and tension – a botched assassination attempt on Prince Muhammad is very well cut together – but those segments are often few and far between in amongst the rest of the material on offer. It’s as if the desire to distil all of this footage into feature-length was a little too much and, indeed, when the credits roll after 90 minutes, it feels like being slightly short-changed. With genuinely important access, Hacker should have done more to maximise his minutes.

It speaks to a wider problem with this movie’s reason for existence. The central hook is that much of the footage was shot by Al Qaeda without ever being intended for public consumption and, therefore, it shines a spotlight on how shockingly human these people are, despite their horrific actions. However, its goal is also to be a compelling documentary with a narrative through-line and this creates a dissonance that leaves the movie feeling slightly less titanic than it should have been. Perhaps a multiple-part TV series would have been a better fit?

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

A goliath effort from director Jonathan Hacker, Path of Blood is an important and troubling look at the dark heart of an infamous terrorist group. It is at its best when it provides a candid and chilling look behind the scenes of terrorism, showing just how ordinary the world of extraordinary violence can become for these people. There is, however, a problem with focus and a running time too brief to fully maximise the frankly incredible access to footage earned by Hacker and his team.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

Path of Blood will be released in cinemas tomorrow and on VOD from July 16. To find screenings near you, visit the official website.

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