Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
Among their many capabilities, great documentaries can serve as provocative indictments of powerful institutions, profound interrogations of journalistic and filmmaking ethics, as well as personal portraits on the most intimate of scales. Very rarely do multiple roles coexist within a single feature. Yet with their remarkable, bold, and spellbinding film “(T)ERROR,” directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe achieve at least the three functions listed above with ease.
Their story starts off simply, following a subject Saeed Torres as he begins a new project working as an informant for the FBI. This is not his first assignment, though it may be the last for this former Black Panther turned terrorist-baiter. The sheer fact that Cabral and Sutcliffe can even get away with filming this activity seems jaw-dropping, but it quickly becomes a minor feat in an epic compilation of dangerous documentary derring-dos.
Saeed, or “Shariff,” as he is known to the bureau brass, heads to Pittsburgh for the sake of scoping out a suspected radical terrorist. The target, a potential homegrown jihadist threat known as “Khalifah”, was raised a well-to-do Protestant and then suddenly converted to a strain of an anti-American Islam. His activism was mostly limited to Facebook, though, and the FBI seeks to use Saeed’s subterfuge as a way to determine if he would carry out an attack on America.
Note the highlighted word; the bureau seeks to nullify hypothetical threats with the same zeal as real ones. Aside from being a freaky “Minority Report”-esque Pre-Crime style of maintaining order, it dangerously blurs the line between ideology and intent. Saeed himself wonders how much the FBI might lead him into situations of entrapment for his marks, though he hardly seems to lose any sleep over his duplicity.
His ambiguity over the fate of the people on whom he observes and reports is fairly remarkable. The gig, for Saeed, is about his own financial security rather than the physical security of the nation, and he complains about how little the FBI compensates him. He views himself as neither patriot nor traitor, just a businessman.
As the questionable motives of both Saeed and the FBI come into sharper focus, Cabral and Sutcliffe fittingly adjust their focus in “(T)ERROR” by adding a new perspective to the narrative: that of Khalifah. They tread a precarious line, one that could have quickly crossed into unethical or perilous territory, by interviewing both the hunter and the hunted without the other knowing. The film quickly becomes the ultimate cat and mouse thriller, made even scarier by the very real stakes.
But their gamble pays off in spades, and it plays as something more than just a gimmick. The form and the process of the film provide a wonderful match. “(T)ERROR” highlights the lack of transparency in maintaining a victorious facade for the war on terror as well as the tacit permission we grant to questionable practices. The film manages to simultaneously be about the subjects, the filmmakers, and the audience, highlighting how we all work to fashion an agreeable reality out of expedient half-truths and outright denial.
But since Cabral and Sutcliffe provide us with a thorough account of what is actually happening, we are left with the task of reconciling the two different images of our world. The internal conversation may not be fun, but it is so necessary. A- /