Film Review: Path of Blood

This searing found-footage documentary about Al-Qaeda’s early 2000s war on the Saudi government is a chilling document of blasé barbarity.
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Given that the war on terror seems to be less a defined conflict than a state of reality—existing in a perpetual ouroboros of calamity, response and repeat—it’s rare to see it treated in a historical context. That won’t be the headline, though, about Jonathan Hacker’s remarkable, gut-churning documentary Path of Blood. What will garner the most attention about this movie is its source material: hundreds of hours of footage shot by Al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers as they waged war on the House of Saud. This is terrorism from the inside out.

One of Osama bin Laden’s most relentless grievances was the presence of at first the American military, and later any Westerners whatsoever, in Saudi Arabia. He considered their very presence an insult to the holy mosques that were the center of Islam and so launched his cadres on a vicious terror campaign to drive out “the Crusaders.” Their first large attack took place in May 2003, just a couple of months after the United States invaded nearby Iraq, targeting several compounds housing Westerners.

While the results were horrific and set off shock waves throughout the kingdom and around the world, the seriousness hardly seems to register with the Al-Qaeda members shown here. While an unseen narrator tries to provide gravitas—“these are the humble, radiant faces of men devoted to their religion”—one of the men we see preparing to drive a suicide truck bomb isn’t playing along. At first, he reads as baffled, saying, “I don’t understand” the script he’s been given, and asking whether what they’re doing is a sin. Then he gets the giggles, as though just messing around on a lazy afternoon with his buddies. “Brother, concentrate!” the unseen voice barks. It’s like watching boys play at war. Only the war is as real as their laughter and nonchalant attitude towards wholesale slaughter.

Excepting some skeletal narration providing the general outlines of the campaign, the movie doesn’t offer much broader context. Path of Blood is primarily an immersive dive into a world of dueling blurry footage: first, the tapes of the Al-Qaeda members themselves as they plan and carry out their attacks; and second, the aftermath and investigation, shot by Saudi CSI teams.

Following the Riyadh bombings, the kingdom’s security forces snapped into high gear. They launched a widespread campaign to root out Al-Qaeda safe houses and disrupt cells. Their successes are documented in the scenes of large-scale shootouts, where platoons of dun-uniformed police and soldiers spray machine-gun fire and rockets into squat brown buildings, and the stockpiles of weapons found afterward. But their enemy is relentless. Their narration intones that after every attack, Al-Qaeda “bury their dead and regroup.”

For all the ferocity of their attacks, the terrorists themselves are rarely seen exhibiting any true hatred or preaching fundamentalist cant. They’re more often bonding, like one scene in a rain-soaked campsite where one boy yells jokingly, “This is martyrdom!” or wondering about how they’ll look, like the future suicide bomber who says regretfully, “I wish I’d filmed my will from up here, it would look great.” The disconnect between the declamations of murderous theocratic ideology (narrated by Tom Hollander) and the practice of terror is most chillingly illustrated in the moment when, after a failed attack on a refinery, one terrorist casually describes his last victim, “an old man going on about Islam.”

As the campaign carries on into 2004 and 2005, with more losses than victories, we see less of that joking cocksureness and more of the grinding crackdown by Saudi security services. What might have been interesting to see more of are the brief glimpses near the end of Saudi programs to rehabilitate former Al-Qaeda members and reeducate them about Islam. A movie that allowed itself more of a narrative skeleton might have also noted the irony of that last part, given how much of the Middle East was seeded for extremist Islam by Saudi-exported Wahabist clerics.

But Path of Blood is more an immediate experience, and as such succeeds in unexpected ways. The human normality of what it shows is nearly more sickening than the carnage itself.