The scene is familiar at first. An earnest young Muslim man sits in a bare room holding forth in front of a video camera on the subject of jihad. From off-screen, the voice of a friend can be heard asking him what he would say to those people who contend that violence is a perversion of Islam. How would he answer that criticism?
The fellow looks momentarily bewildered.
“I wasn’t briefed on this,” he says.
The voice chides him: “You weren’t concentrating.”
The young man laughs. Yes, that’s true, he has to admit he hadn’t been paying attention. Could the off-screen interviewer stop using such high-flown language? “I do better if the questions are shorter,” he says, a touch sheepishly.
He has some other requests. How about a coffee refill? And if his friends, lurking just out of the frame, could stop making him laugh that would be a big help, too. The voice reframes the question, only the merest hint of impatience creeping in, but it’s no good. The young man is cracking up again. He can’t keep a straight face. And what’s this? He’s got his second coffee but it’s in the same vessel as before! The whole 72 virgins thing is all very well, but is it too much to expect a clean cup first?
This is the opening scene of Path of Blood, a new documentary culled entirely from footage shot by the Saudi security services and hundreds of hours of raw video seized in raids on Al Qaeda safe-houses. The temptation to invoke Four Lions, Chris Morris’s 2010 dark comedy about a group of inept would-be jihadists, is impossible to resist; indeed, Path of Blood adds some retroactive authenticity to the earlier film by proving that the lunacy cooked up by Morris in the name of satire looks positively level-headed compared to what we see from their real-life counterparts. It’s bizarre enough watching jihadists larking around: laughter and tomfoolery in this context is as jarring as the sight of an NHS nurse condoning mass slaughter in Four Lions. But to see that they are preoccupied by the same things that worry the rest of us is both levelling and unsettlingly poignant.
At a terrorist training camp, time between exercises is passed with wheelbarrow races. (So that’s what they do when they’re not taking apart Kalashnikovs and putting them back together again). They compare weapons (“What do you think of my sparkling gun?”) and swap compliments (“Your hair looks amazing!”). They wink at the lens and stick out their tongues; they play football and worry about whether the cameraman caught a glimpse of their underwear when their trousers fell down. It could be any episode of You’ve Been Framed were it not for the brutal endgame.
No one could accuse the makers of Path of Blood, including the producer-director Jonathan Hacker and the executive producer Mark Boal (who wrote Kathryn Bigelow’s films The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and Detroit) of understating the threat posed by these young men. Halfway through the picture, there is an abrupt swerve into home videos of a different sort, and all at once the disbelieving laughter catches in our throats. Without this darkening of tone, the movie would be guilty of a dereliction of duty. But it becomes a necessarily harder watch the further we get from that first scene with the giggling buffoon and his indignant beverage requests. The knowledge that most of what we’re seeing is through Al Qaeda’s own eyes lends every shot a macabre chill.
The film has a pared-back style and structure, with minimal contextualising narration by Samuel West. We also hear jihadi pronouncements read aloud, and if the credit “Voice of jihad: Tom Hollander” causes a chuckle, the decision to have these chilling edicts delivered by that actor in his coldest and most detached tones turns out to be a wise one, closer to the iciness of HAL 9000 than to any Hollywood preconceptions about the monstrous foreign Other.
There is dry wit, too, in some of the script’s euphemistic turns of phrase. After a bomb is detonated at a compound for foreign workers, the Saudi authorities “persuade” clerics to withdraw fatwas on television, and the government, we are told, “persuades” Al Qaeda prisoners to go public with their experiences. Oh, I bet they were persuaded alright. Possibly with the threat of some hardship greater than the imposition of a one-coffee-per-prisoner limit or the withdrawal of unsullied cups.
‘Path of Blood’ is released on 13 July.