The amoral anti-terror practices that have been employed by the US authorities in the years since 9/11 are put under the spotlight in this stirring if slim documentary, directed by Lyric R Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe. It’s a fearless piece that plunges into the menacingly murky waters in which the FBI operate, but ultimately leaves feeling like it has only skimmed across the surface of the subject.
If someone told you the story of Saeed ‘Shariff’ Torres – the prime centre of (T)ERROR – in a pub, then you’d be forgiven for suspecting them of having a serious drinking problem; it sounds so suspiciously implausible that it could only be a work of fiction. Torres is an ex-convict, and was once a member of the radical and revolutionary Black Panther Party, who now makes a living as an informant for the FBI. Tasked with targeting and entrapping a white Muslim man named Khalifah, Shariff heads to Pittsburgh and begins surveilling his mark. However, it soon becomes clear that the Bureau have little interest in finding hard evidence to support their suspicions.
There’s an interesting moment midway into the investigation where we catch Torres watching an episode of Homeland. It’s no coincidence. Say what you like critically about that show’s quality, it has always maintained that the simple ‘good American/bad Muslim’ mantra is myth. And this viewpoint is shared by Cabral and Sutcliffe. Their film is not an attack on those who are hunted, it’s a condemnation of those who do the hunting; in this case the frustratingly faceless FBI, who, it predictably transpires, refused to be interviewed on camera.The two directors immerse their audience in Torres’ investigation, the use of shaky guerrilla footage and tightly focused close ups giving the film a chilling conspiratorial quality. And the ethically challenging evidence they expose is powerful and provocative. Unbeknownst to Shariff, Cabral and Sutcliffe also arrange interviews with Khalifah, which show him to be a man with hateful thoughts but a harmless and honest nature. Yet, because he was flagged on their radar, the Feds are convinced he’s a threat; in their eyes, Khalifah is guilty until he can prove his innocence.
(T)ERROR is a striking, serious film, but thankfully not one that’s devoid of humour, Saeed’s colourful charisma shining through from the moment we first meet him. “Now I know why celebrities hate those fucking paparazzi’s,” he says at one point, when the camera becomes too intrusive.
The implications of what we see are frightening and fascinating in equal measure. However, at 80 minutes in length and with such a narrow focus, (T)ERROR is a far from thorough exposé, more a microcosm of a much larger story that begs to be explored. The message could not be clearer though; “this is a story that never ends” says Torres in the film’s final moments, what a truly terrifying thought that is.