A farce and a political drama rolled into one, David Felix Sutcliffe and Lyric R. Cabral’s gripping documentary (T)error has the gaze of a persistent, unwelcome house guest. It begins by introducing us to Saeed Torres, or Saeed Sharrif, a Muslim and former Black Panther who met Cabral in 2002, and revealed to her in 2005 that he was an informant for the FBI, spying on others in the Muslim community. In 2011, we’re told, he allowed Cabral and Sutcliffe to film his investigation into a man named Khalifah Al-Akili, an American-born Jihadist and ex-con fond of posting his enthusiastic support for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban on Facebook.
This kind of access to a confidential informant in the middle of an elaborate sting operation — without any permission from the FBI or anyone else — is already unprecedented. But as the film proceeds, Saeed, who says this will be his last case, becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the attention. “Now I see why no celebrities don’t like paparazzi,” he remarks, half-jokingly. And the film has absorbed his unease into its aesthetic. So much of what we see of Saeed consists of fragments — his arms, or the back of his head, or a shadowy profile, or an extreme close-up. He’s ever-present, but hard to pin down. We sense that he’s invited the filmmakers — and, by extension, us — into his world, and is now trying to shake them off. For all of (T)error’s topicality and its thriller-like qualities, what makes the film is Sutcliffe and Cabral’s compact, complex portrait of Saeed — paranoid, chatty, mired in self-loathing, but also oddly reflective. “I don’t exist,” he says early on in the film. “I’m a spook, an informant.” We sense no pride in his voice; his words seem filled with regret more than anything else.
There’s another level of discomfort at work here, however: The sense that we’re not quite getting the full picture with regards to the subject of Saeed’s investigation. Even Saeed alternates between glorifying Khalifah’s actions and dismissing them. He claims to be taking a bold stand for his religion, but he also admits he needs the money. Sometimes, he even concedes that Khalifah might not be the monster he seems to be. And Saeed’s work as an informant is one way that he keeps the law from bothering himself; it benefits him to find monsters lurking out there in the shadows, even if they’re make-believe ones.
That’s maybe the first half of (T)error, and those averse to spoilers may want to skip this next part. Because the filmmakers, just as they scored access to Saeed, eventually start filming Khalifah’s side of the events as well. And we realize that this guy — dopey, misguided, and blustery as he may be — is not a real Jihadist at all, and certainly no real threat to anyone. Not only that, but he seems well aware that somebody’s trying to set him up. (I won’t reveal how he finds out the FBI are watching him, but suffice it to say that the people tasked with keeping our homeland safe from terrorism don’t appear to be very detail-oriented.) So, we get these perspectives on a collision path with one another. And (T)error, like the punctuation in its title suggests, goes from being a tense procedural and absorbing character study to an astonishing, real-life satire about the surveillance state. You won’t know whether to laugh or cry.