The camera is rolling, the lines have been prepared, and the coffee cup stands empty below the actor’s feet, outside of frame. It’s showtime, but the show isn’t on yet for the young actor seems to have forgotten his lines. The other boys around him laugh, and the camera catches a glimpse of the cheeky smily from the pudgy boy – if he appears slow, forgiveness is found in his youth: he only wants a coffee refill, he’ll say his lines correctly after if he only gets his coffee. This isn’t some behind-the-scenes outtake, this isn’t the beginning to a comedy. The young man, Abdulaziz, does get his act together and repeats the lines which the director/camera operator want him to say: He is jihadist, and dreams not of his name in lights, but instead gladly looks forward to meeting his demise in the hopes of religious martyrdom in the form of driving a suicide van into military buildings.
Jonathan Hacker’s Path of Blood is the visual retelling of his 2015 book by the same name, and lets the members of Al Qaeda tell their own stories as jihadists through their own home movies and through the news covering their attacks. The film is listed as a documentary, but while watching, one can’t stop think of a terrific black-comedy. A group of teenage boys who spend their summers trying to overthrow a government, but all goes wrong by their own short-sightedness and ignorance, a Stand By Me but where the boys are brainwashed into believing their actions will bring about governmental and world change. And that’s one of the brilliantly disarming strengths of Path of Blood: we are able to view a group of terrorist recruits as a group of boys as goofy and inefficient as the cast of The Office. It is no mistake that he showcases the jihadist’s personalities before he shows their horrific crime – he humanises the terrorists and showcases one of the recruiting tactics of Al Qaeda of going after isolated young men who don’t seem to fit into regular society and who want someone to impress, who want that connection of a loving father. The more experienced jihadists take these young men out on boot camps, and it is as innocent as a Boy Scouts advertisement: campfire songs, snacks, and group games. But the fun doesn’t last and the next day the young men are taught how to fire and flee from a moving vehicle, of the best tactics how to attack a guard. But while the boys can be boys, danger occurs when they are armed with Russian-made rifles and home-made bombs. The damage and carnage is eased into the film, escalating as the time goes on in a way that reassures and comforts the viewer in afterthought. While bloodshed is shown, it comes slowly: the audience is the proverbial frog and the Hacker is the one who turns up the heat of the water in a way that deserves its full due and credit, but it doesn’t detract fully from the film’s weaker points.
What stops the documentary from being completely remarkable is it’s voice-overs and narration that takes the audience would of the mind of its casts, the ones filming and recording themselves before they blow up a public space or house. The film is at its strongest when the touch of the filmmaker is removed and if Hacker took a note out of Frederick Wiseman’s technique. But if one can forgive this fault, then the film can be spectacular. While the summer cinema will surely by filled with wars of mythical comic-book characters of franchises, one could choose to confront the real evils of the world with the Path of Blood. It’s a psychological feast, and it’s buffet will leave the viewer remembering it for years.
In UK Cinemas July 13th