“Understanding what drives Islamic terrorism in the 21st century is as important as understanding what drove Communism in the 20th,” said documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hacker, whose latest film, Path of Blood, premiered in July in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and is currently available on Amazon Prime.
The film is a gripping account of a wave of terrorist bombings launched by Al Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia in 2003. Based on 500 hours of raw video footage shot by the jihadis themselves and Saudi security forces, Path of Blood gets beyond the two-dimensional characters portrayed in Western media and depicts Islamic terrorists in a way they haven’t been before. Hacker spoke with the Santa Barbara Independent from New York City. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
What was your first reaction when you were presented with all the raw video footage?
A mix of excitement and trepidation. We had heard from our Saudi Arabian collaborators that the footage was a mix shot by Al Qaeda and the Saudi security forces. Much of it was of poor quality, the dialogue was in Arabic, of course, but slang or regional dialects spoken in thick Bedouin accents. None of the material was cataloged, so we had to bring in a big team just to work on cataloging and identifying all the characters. That was challenging, but there were so many gems in the footage that I knew we had the ingredients of a powerful film.
The young men in the film are rather unremarkable, hardly like the hardened, implacable figures depicted in the Western media. Were you surprised by this?
On the one hand, they sometimes seem like a bunch of goofy college kids, playing with guns out in the desert. They’re not highly trained special forces, though they fancy themselves as such. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much training to kill hundreds of people. The mind-set is fascinating. These young men and others like them see themselves as romantic Koranic figures locked in an epic struggle, not only against the West, but a struggle for Islam itself. What they do is evil, but they’re not simply two-dimensional Hollywood villains. Nothing about Islam or the Middle East is simple. It’s a very complicated region.
Besides idealism and a misguided pursuit of adventure, what drives these young men?
I think what comes across in the film is that these young men honestly believe that life is a test of their faith, and that if they die in service to their faith, they will go to heaven and be met by 72 virgins. There’s a scene in the film where one of the characters kisses a license plate they’ve made that reads “72 Virgins.” Their belief seems unfathomable to us, but we have to try to understand it in order to deal with this phenomenon of Islamic terrorism.
Path of Blood isn’t an easy film to watch.
No, but a film about terrorism should be uncompromising, raw, and disturbing. So many times we see a film and quickly forget it, but the images in this film stay with you. It’s haunting.