PATH OF BLOOD
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonathan Hacker
Screenwriter: Jonathan Hacker adapted from the book by Hacker and Thomas Small
Cast: Samuel West, narrator. Tom Hollander as voices of the Jihad. Various members of Al-Qaeda plus government and security forces in Riyadh and environs
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/16/18
Opens: July 13, 2018
This documentary is so real, its dialogue so tense, its speeches by leaders and member of Al-Qaeda so emotional, that you’d swear that “Path of Blood” is either a work of dramatic fiction or a mockumentary. But it is neither. This doc carries some of the most authentic information about the work of security forces in oil-rich Saudi Arabia against what they must consider the forces of darkness that it rivals even the excitement of fictional narratives like “The Hurt Locker.” The only distraction is a constant interruption of blank, black screens with “snow” to separate the chapters or even to show that Hacker is switching from the Al-Qaeda people to those in the Saudi government.
This is Jonathan Hacker’s first full-length feature, his other work dealing with TV shorts such as “Blackboards and Bullies,” which explores the roots of violent incidents in America’s school systems and tangible ways for communities to improve child safety. Recent school shootings make this sort of filmmaking essential, though with “Path of Blood,” Hacker investigates ideologically-driven madmen who have inflicted far worse punishments on their enemies than anyone has done so far in American schools.
“Path of Blood” consists of three categories of films, edited by Peter Haddon, Kirsi Pyy and Bob H. Woodward, all known mostly for their work on TV documentaries. One set consists of home movies taken by operatives in Al-Qaeda documenting the planning and training–meant only for their own people but captured by government forces after successful raids on what are called the organization’s safe houses. The second set is also filmed by Al-Qaeda, but these are fairly professional propaganda pieces meant to be seen by the “Crusaders,” who are their mortal enemies; the Crusaders being now only westerners but Saudi government forces who, the spokesmen say, should be fighting the Americans and not the terrorists. The third films were taken by Saudi officials to document their actions, showing the bodies of the fallen, catching the shooting even during the height of the battles. Most impressive.
There is, of course, some repetition as Hacker transcribes one action after another by security and the same by the terrorists. But we come away ultimately with these words of wisdom:
First, as admitted by Al-Qaeda reps themselves, a huge percentage of recruits are young, ignorant people, easy to motivate, especially when each has 72 virgins awaiting him after martyrdom. They are not only ignorant: they are stupid. In the opening scene, one that should grab the audience immediately, one “Ali,” almost clean shaven, his face unmasked, is getting intellectual training. Not an exact quote, but: “Ali, What do you say if you hear that what we are doing is a sin against Islam?” Answer: “I don’t understand the question. Keep it simple.” We never do find out whether he considers killing fellow Muslim is a sin, or even if the fellow knows the meaning of the word “sin.” In the same video, the men are horsing around, laughing it up, perhaps telling crude jokes, just like American adolescents. Recruits are assured that when they blow themselves, they will not feel a thing. Take it from someone who knows.
Second: Throughout, the men are told about the bad guys, the pro-West Crusaders: “Expel them! Rip them apart! Destroy them until they either die or convert to the true religion!” At least one of the Al-Qaeda people has been on missions in Bosnia, Yemen, and Afghanistan as well as in Saudi Arabia. In one instance they capture a western man, Paul Johnson, question him about his work, tell him that he is lying, wrap a gag around his mouth to accompany the blindfold, and presumably behead him. Instead of seeing the execution, Hacker provides us once again with that distracting, snow-covered black screen.
And so it goes: the terrorists plan attacks by car bombs. Some succeed, others do not. In the end, the Al-Qaeda reps who are captured, many actually turning themselves in because they are the few who do not “love death,” are sorted into the extremists and the moderate ideologues. The latter group are given re-education, not North Korean style, but a real re-education program in classrooms to bring them back into society. We don’t see what happens to the extremists. Cue the black screen.
Saudi Arabia is not known as a state with Swedish-style human rights, but there are good reasons for our alliance with them. They have money up the wazoo and buy things from us. They are fighting terrorists just as we are, and here in the U.S. we don’t yet have a Swedish-style government either—or at least the public’s stereotypical view of what goes on in Sweden, the rest of Scandinavia, and other Shangri-las. The film is adapted from Jonathan Hacker and Thomas Small’s 480-page book which sells for over $30 at Amazon—which despite the upcoming movie has only one copy on hand right now. The film is in Arabic with English subtitles except for the English narration.
Unrated. 91 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+