When criminals wear masks, it lends them a stylized, otherworldly quality. Since we can’t see their faces, we tend to think of their identity as more abstract (i.e., as Evil). The movies have always understood this, and so have the leaders of terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or Al Qaeda, who project a hooded-horror iconography — let’s call it a dark kind of showbiz — to express the fearsome power of their ideologies. After 9/11, the black facial scarves worn by members of Al Qaeda in the group’s widely seen videos (the training-camp recruitment films, the hideous kidnapping and beheading tapes) served the purpose of concealing who they were, but they were also a way of creating a warning to the West. The warning said: We’re not just your enemy — we’re a supervillain.
Or maybe, in their own eyes, a superhero.
The startling documentary “Path of Blood” is comprised almost entirely of home-movie video footage of Islamic jihadists in Saudi Arabia, shot from 2003 to 2009. The footage was captured during raids by Saudi security forces, and what it shows us is the guerrilla war mounted by the followers of Osama bin Laden against the Saudi establishment, which the terrorists viewed as a toxic regime that had spent decades in bed with the United States. It was bin Laden’s grandiose plan to recapture Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam (“The Land of the Two Holy Mosques”), and from there to re-establish a Muslim empire than could take on and destroy the West.
In “Path of Blood,” we see Al Qaeda members driving into the Saudi desert in the dead of night to set up a makeshift training camp, or learning spy-film maneuvers, like how to roll forward and fire a gun, or how to plant a car bomb, or sitting around with rocket launchers before they head out on a mission to murder “infidels,” who in their eyes could be anyone who works for the Saudi government. At one point they smuggle a bomb into a meeting with a prince, a feat that they accomplish by inserting the bomb into a terrorist’s body through his rectum. When it blows up (an event we hear without video), the prince walks away with barely a scratch, but you have to say this: That’s probably one terrorist technique they never learned about in the CIA.
In the year or two after 9/11, when the world was flooded with images of Muslim terrorists shrouded in black, it was impossible not to imagine the faces under those masks as solemn, glowering, raging, implacable. But in “Path of Blood,” the masks come off, and we literally see the faces of Al Qaeda in action, with the propaganda machine turned off. What’s shocking is how ordinary and high-spirited they appear.
They are young, most of them, in their teens or early twenties, and they grin and joke and have wheelbarrow races and are visibly at peace with the fact that they’re training to be martyrs. They turn the pillars of Islamic fundamentalism into a kind of deadly larger-than-life fantasy — almost a comic-book fantasy. The “superhero” they’re fighting on behalf of is God. The superhero’s earthly representative is Osama bin Laden. And the evil entity they’re out to defeat is a single united force: “The Crusaders.” This is more than ideology; it’s a mythology they’re part of. We knew all this, of course, yet to see it play out in “Path of Blood” — to see young men grinning like kids at religious youth camp as they get ready to destroy themselves — is to be newly chilled by the alternate reality they’re living inside.
“Path of Blood” was directed by Jonathan Hacker, who co-wrote (with Thomas Small) the book on which the film is based, and his radical technique is to employ none of the traditional methods that give a documentary its shape or a documentary audience its bearings. There are no talking heads, no data or analysis. For 90 random and often bloody minutes, we’re dunked into the raw life of Al Qaeda. A little of this can go a long way, yet “Path of Blood” does have a verité “thriller” element. It shows us the Saudi Arabian officials trying to crack down on their internal enemy — a cat-and-mouse game built around conflicts that are still tearing away at the country’s identity.
Watching “Path of Blood,” with its scattered, meandering, grippingly caught panorama of what we used to call “the post-9/11 world,” it’s easy to get drawn into feeling that the dark eruption has now receded a bit. The truth, of course, is that these tensions haven’t gone anywhere — except, at times, underground. “Path of Blood” is a sobering reminder of that fact. It shows you the power of rage that’s held together by the serenity of belief.