A vital expose of American law enforcement carried out with almost reckless zeal, Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s “(T)error” pushes the boundaries of documentary ethics, plunging itself into the middle of an active FBI sting operation while playing both sides in an attempt to understand — and by extension, to reveal — how the U.S. government identifies and apprehends terror suspects. After discovering that an acquaintance was working as an undercover informant, the filmmakers elbow their way into his investigation, initially covering just his side, but later reaching out to the target behind his back for a more complete (and complicated) picture. Such unusual and highly suspect access yields first-of-its-kind coverage sure to rile audiences as it reveals the thin line between government “intelligence” work and outright ineptitude. So far the directors have earned positive attention and a special jury prize at Sundance, though they’re equally likely to encounter criticism down the line.
In the days immediately preceding the 1991 siege on David Koresh’s compound, the Waco Tribune Herald ran an in-depth expose of the cult and its activities, suggesting that someone at the paper had been tipped off about the impending ATF raid. “(T)error” raises some of the same prickly questions: Certainly, citizens have a right to know more than the government is sharing about the aggressive national security policies in place since 9/11, though at what point could meddling in an active investigation constitute an obstruction of justice?
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Meanwhile, Cabral and Sutcliffe are driven by the deeper question of whether justice is actually being served by contemporary counterterrorism measures, which seem to rely on tactics that veer uncomfortably close to entrapment, as when FBI operatives work to lure Muslim Americans into plots that the government has dreamed up for the cause. (Last year’s Tribeca doc “The Newburgh Sting,” later aired on HBO, more elegantly infiltrated and exposed this process.)
The filmmakers’ subject is a former Black Panther named Saeed Torres — or “Shariff,” according to his latest alias — one of an estimated 15,000 informants working with the FBI to investigate dissidents the agency considers potentially dangerous. Torres has a big mouth and even bigger personality, first seen showing off at a local Pittsburgh basketball game: He’s an active part of his community and, as such, someone who might gain the confidence of susceptible personalities. But it’s one thing for suspects to be swayed into illegal behavior, and quite another for them to be capable of planning and executing terrorist acts on their own.
Still, Torres’ job requires a certain amount of discretion, and so the filmmakers try to keep their cameras out of sight, giving the documentary a covert cloak-and-dagger feel. Oftentimes, it’s unclear whether Torres even realizes they’re filming, as in a scene in which he takes a call from the FBI in an adjacent room. Though he shares privileged FBI text messages, Torres clearly hasn’t informed his superiors about the project, which gets more complicated after he’s assigned to approach POI (or “person of interest”) Khalifah Al-Akili, a white Muslim convert with a criminal record and a bad habit of posting incendiary comments on his Facebook page.
Al-Akili quickly gets wise to the fact that he’s being set up, and the directors make an unorthodox choice: “Unbeknownst to Shariff, Khalifah posts on Facebook his suspicions that he is being targeted by the FBI. The filmmakers contact Khalifah to request an interview,” the docu explains. It’s hard to imagine the logistics the duo used to film both parties without either one being aware of the other — or the deceptions involved in approaching Al-Akili as he airs his suspicions and seeks legal support from Muslim advocacy org Project SALAM, while withholding the fact they’d been surreptitiously tracking his case from the beginning. Granted, it makes for great material, though the conflicts of interest quickly add up, recalling such fictional ’70s-era media critiques as “Network” and “Hi, Mom!”
Even Torres seems to have his doubts about the government’s methods, suggesting to his superiors that they are pushing too hard and insisting that Al-Akili isn’t the sort of threat they take him to be. But Torres’ target has effectively been prejudged, with or without his contributions, and Cabral and Sutcliffe’s cameras are there outside Al-Akili’s apartment when the FBI storm in to make their arrest. The filmmakers play his case for sympathy, implying that the government trumps up the charges (using criminal possession of a firearm to lock him up for eight years when the rest doesn’t stick), but in the sensationalistic vein of so many documentaries, “(T)error” is less interested in legal particulars than a more emotion-driven sense of justice.
It’s not the film’s place to exonerate or convict, but rather, to educate audiences and spark conversation that could potentially make such pre-emptive counterterrorism arrests more fair. In that respect, “(T)error” courageously handles a hot-potato topic, even going so far as to reach into Torres’ past and re-examine the case of Tarik Shah, another Muslim he effectively helped to convict in Brooklyn. The FBI may seem all-powerful and intimidating, but by focusing on an imperfect in-the-trenches personality like Torres, who does it for the money at great cost to his own conscience, the film stresses just how fallible the system is — and the urgent need to police it more closely.