Directors: Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe
Running Time: 1:24
Release Date: 10/7/15 (limited); 10/30/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 29, 2015
It takes a certain kind of person to become an FBI informant, but it's an entirely different breed of person who wants others to know that he is an informant. (T)ERROR introduces us that kind of person, and it's as fascinating, disheartening, and galling an experience as one might expect.
The man in question—who both is an informant for the FBI and wants to advertise that fact—is Saeed, a former member of the Black Panthers and struggling Muslim who took the gig in order to get a reduced sentence on a 20-year stint in prison. He used to rob the New York City transit system, disguised as a police officer, and donate some of the stolen money to his mosque, without their knowledge of where he obtained said money. Saeed saw and still sees himself as a sort of Robin Hood figure during that period in his life. We might believe him, too, if not for the fact that he repeatedly has proven himself to be dishonest and delusional by the time he talks about his past.
At this point, one is probably wondering how the filmmakers gained access to Saeed and the information about his clandestine work. Well, Saeed offered that information to one of the filmmakers after a two-year acquaintanceship. Two years after he revealed that tidbit, he asked the filmmaker to document his techniques during an upcoming assignment. Yes, he requested that this documentary be made.
Our first introduction to the man comes with him speaking over a black screen, complaining about the fact that his face will be recorded by the camera. He can't show his face, he cries, because he's well-known in his neighborhood. We're not exactly sure what Saeed thought he was getting into when he suggested that he be filmed doing his work, but note that he doesn't complain again after the initial outrage. He knows what this means. Besides, because of an earlier investigation that we learn about later, everyone who knows Saeed in his neighborhood also knows what he has been doing for the feds. The complaint sure does make him seem important, though.
Directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe don't have to do much probing to get Saeed to talk. He might appear to become wary at the mention of certain subjects—most especially himself. By the end of the film, though, he has revealed his strategy for gaining the trust of strangers and told us almost the entirety of his life story. The filmmakers only have to ask him twice before the words pour out of him.
Saeed's assignment takes him to Pittsburgh. The name for his cover is "Shariff." He will pretend to be a fundamentalist practitioner of Islam who works for the Red Cross. His mark is a man in his 30s named Khalifah al-Akili, whom the FBI suspects of either having ties to terrorism or being susceptible to making those connections.
The latter, of course, isn't a crime. That's Saeed's job: to make a person of interest to the FBI take the step from susceptibility to action. It's not "technically" entrapment, Saeed—and, by extension, the FBI—argues, because he's not telling a person to join a terrorist organization. He's just putting the thought in the target's mind and, with the help of the feds, setting up the circumstances under which the target would do such a thing. It's a fine line—so fine that it's practically non-existent, really.
One might have a picture of Saeed's target in mind. At first, Cabral and Sutcliffe don't do anything to remedy that assumption. We see Khalifah in black-and-white surveillance photos. We see photos of him from behind at public shooting range, which were posted at a social networking site and in which we can only make out that he's wearing a turban, has a beard, and is holding a rifle. We don't hear his voice, but we do read an assortment of text messages between him and "Shariff," as the latter attempts to meet with him and get him talking about terrorism in some way.
Initially, our picture of Khalifah is painted by the FBI's suspicions and Saeed's impressions of the man. Cabral and Sutcliffe break down that picture in two ways. The first is to explore the kind of man Saeed is. The film does not give us a flattering portrait of the man, although most of that can be placed squarely in the hands of Saeed himself.
Early in the film, we hear a radio talk show host discussing the nature of an FBI informant with an expert on the subject. The expert's conclusion is that such people are "sociopaths." In the moment, it seems like a loaded, inflammatory thing to place so early in the film. Let's just say that Saeed—with his egotistical self-promotion, his belief that pretty much everyone (from those whom he's informed on to the FBI itself) is an enemy, and his willingness to skirt the law without actually understanding it—doesn't help to correct the observation.
The second method comes later in the film, as the filmmakers go behind Saeed's back to talk to Khalifah. Let's also just say that he is nothing like the man about whom we've heard. Obviously, the film is critical of the FBI's counterterrorism techniques involving informants, and it's never more effective a critique than when we see and hear Khalifah, who—without any prompting from the filmmakers—knows exactly what's happening here.
In an absurd twist of fortune, the film essentially becomes a comedy about the ineptitude of the informant program. In a far less amusing turn, (T)ERROR becomes a frightening story about how even the most inept among the powerful still wield a tremendous amount of power.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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