Path Of Blood

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Path Of Blood
"It's charming, heartbreaking and scary in equal measure, especially as one reflects that many of the young men we see in these films will be dead by now, some of them having killed a lot of other people first."

When you hear about young men going off to places like Saudi Arabia to train as terrorists, what do you imagine? The rhetoric on both sides is so aggressive that it's easy to imagine tightly disciplined units working through military exercises whilst Full Metal Jacket-style instructors look on and shout; and afterwards, perhaps, religious discussion or ideological sermons. But these are guys with the same passions as their peers, guys who have grown up watching the same action blockbusters and playing the same video games. They're not being taught by aged mullahs but, often, by men just a decade or so older than themselves. This is a self-taught army. There's expertise, sure, but the approach is far from formal.

Why do men seek out these camps and why is it so hard for parents and police to deter them? As Irvine Welsh said of people who campaign ineffectually against heroin, "What they forget is the pleasure of it." Path Of Blood presents us with footage produced by Al Qaeda itself; home movies made in training camps not as propaganda but as a record of day to day life. We see the propaganda out-takes and the sessions in which newcomers are simple practising with the camera. And what we see is something that's attractive because it's fun. The pleasure here does not, for the most part, derive from a sensation of greater closeness to Allah, but from spending time fooling around or engaging in exciting activities with other young men who share the same enthusiasm. Playing soldiers in the desert, firing big guns like in the movies. No girls allowed.

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It's charming, heartbreaking and scary in equal measure, especially as one reflects that many of the young men we see in these films will be dead by now, some of them having killed a lot of other people first - the footage was seized after a raid on a camp responsible for setting off three car bombs in Western compounds in the region. Towards the end of the film, in one of the few bits of filmed contextual material, we hear from people who have spent time in the camps as hostages, hear them reflect on Al Qaeda's strategy of seeking out young men who are just not very bright. Asked by a colleague about the reasons why he's decided to become a martyr, one guy in the recovered footage clearly struggles to comprehend the question, asking his colleague not to use such big words. Viewers might be reminded of Waj in Four Lions, but it's horrible to see a man this vulnerable doing it for real.

There's a lot of laughter in the film. These are terrorists who seem like they'd be fun to hang out with; then we see the results of some of their actions. Of course, an Al Qaeda advocate might argue that this film is itself propaganda or that the footage from the camps is faked, but whilst that's possible with some of it, other scenes really don't come across that way. The mentality it takes to become a propaganda filmmaker doesn't mesh well with the messiness of much of what we see; it would take unusual skill for actors to create these scenes. Yet careful editing creates a sense of narrative and helps us make sense of the different things happening in and around the camp.

A fascinating insight into a way of living that few of us will ever connect with directly, Path Of Blood makes an important contribution to ongoing conversations about terrorism and how to handle it, and is important viewing for anyone concerned that a friend or loved one might decide to give such training camps a try.

Reviewed on: 10 Jul 2018
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A documentary constructed from home movies made inside Saudi terrorist training camps.

Director: Jonathan Hacker

Year: 2018

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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