“(T)ERROR”, the debut documentary from directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, is a the epitome of a slow burn. The first half of the film, about FBI sting operations in a post-9/11 world, could easily be described as boring.
It focuses on Saeed “Shariff” Torres, a black Muslim ex-convict and FBI informant in the middle of an active operation in Pittsburgh. Having helped the FBI on several stings including one that resulted in the conviction of one his closest friends, Saeed is an angry, lonely, and difficult subject to follow. He resents his FBI handlers as much as he relies on them for the money they give him for tracking and befriending persons of interest – most of them Muslim.
His resentment and angry, while interesting in and of itself, creates a barrier and a distance, making it near impossible to become fully engaged with the story unfolding in real time. The filmmakers spend more time than was probably necessary chronicling Saeed’s background – his past as a former black panther, his run-ins with the law, and the sting operation in New York City that lost him most of his friends and family.
It could have worked, but Saeed’s volatility and unwillingness to share with the filmmakers (despite agreeing to let them film him without the FBI’s knowledge) gets frustratingly old after awhile. Watching Saeed talk about the current POI he’s tracking in only the vaguest of terms while refusing for the most part to unpack his feelings about being an informant may not be the most enthralling, but at the halfway mark the filmmakers make a genius and key shift in the narrative that changes everything.
The shift comes with Cabral and Sutcliffe, unbeknownst to Saeed, begin filming his target – a white Muslim man named Khalifah. It’s an ingenious twist, one that expands the scope of the story being told, provides context, and raises the stakes. Suddenly, we’re watching both sides of a messed-up cat and mouse game, as Saeed attempts to coerce Khalifah into revealing fundamentalist and terrorist attitudes while Khalifah, on the other hand, tries to navigate dealing with a man whom he strongly suspects is trying to entrap him.
This marks the first time a counterterrorism operation has been captured on screen, in real time, and it’s thrilling, stuff. It’s also, for lack of a better word, terrifying. As exasperating as his volatility can be, Saeed’s dynamic with the FBI is understandable. Much of the film seeks to expose the inconsistencies and incompleteness inherent in many of these sting operations, as well as the terror Muslim communities feel knowing that there are FBI informants in their midst, trying to uncover terrorist plots that may or may not be happening.
To date, 500 people have been charged with terrorism related crimes since 9/11, 30% of those cases involving an informant-driven sting operation. As an example of how these sting operations operate, “(T)ERROR” is a sobering portrait of a system that may be in dire need of reform and regulation in order to actually work. In the end, there are many questions, but one definitive answer: both sides of the coin, both the Saeeds and the Khalifahs, are essentially disposable pawns in an increasingly complex and convoluted war on terror.
Below, director Cabral (also a photojournalist) recently chatted with MSNBC about the making of “(T)ERROR,” and more:
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.