Path of Blood (2018) Film Review
Path of Blood has already racked up significant column inches prior to its release for its “controversial” use of footage shot by members of Al Qaeda. Hands were wrung not only over the ethics of using such footage, but also the efficacy of somehow “humanising” religious extremists responsible for the murder of hundreds of people.
In practice, it is most certainly a provocation, but a largely necessary and justified one. From the opening minutes, the documentary is concerned with pulling the rug from under our media-fed conception of the Mujahideen. It starts with the familiar sight of balaclava-clad, Kalashnikov-wielding extremists shot on a low-res digital camera.
Then, after two minutes of this boilerplate fundamentalist spiel, one of the members messes up his lines. What follows is not unlike a blooper reel from the end of an Adam Sandler comedy, with the same young man smirking, making cracks about the quality of the coffee at their compound, and suggesting that the cameraman make his questions about the glory of Allah “less complex”.
By dropping the monolithic veil of jihadists as a single, malevolent force, and facing up to the reality of their being a loosely-organised force of human beings, in fact makes the moments of horrific violence and their all the more sickening.
Your stomach drops whenever director Jonathan Hacker employs the obvious-yet-effective trick of following up one of these humanising moments with footage shot by the Saudi security forces, as emergency services pull the bodies of children from the rubble of a building destroyed by one of these suicide bombers we saw mucking about only moments prior.
That much of the early reaction to Path of Blood has compared the documentary to Chris Morris’s satirical black comedy Four Lions (2010) is testament not only to the commendable depth of research Morris undertook, but also to how starved we are for nuanced depictions of Mujahideen. That doesn’t just mean the hoo-rah jingoism of Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016), or the biased viewpoint of much Western news outlets, but also the incredibly well-crafted propaganda disseminated by organisations like Al Qaeda and, more recently, ISIS.
Were it not for Hacker’s clarifying moments of narration, the film Path of Blood would in fact most resemble Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson (2016). Where that discursive feature was a form of autobiography cobbled together from the off-cuts of documentaries Johnson had worked on, Path of Blood fills in the blanks left out of US-centric filmic reportage like Michael Ware’s Only The Dead (2015) or Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure (2008) and The Unknown Known (2013), or the more esoteric long view taken by Adam Curtis in The Power of Nightmares (2004) and Bitter Lake (2015).
There are moments which are less effective — such as its horror movie score and use of found footage cliches for its edits — but for its unparalleled insider access and success at unearthing a clear, albeit disturbing, narrative in the bloody chaos of the campaign in Saudi Arabia, this is a vital, often unbearable work of documentary reportage free of editorialising or sensationalism.
Path of Blood will be available on DVD from 10th December.