Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015
Out of 5: 3.5
Before we even see his face, we know Saeed Torres, the beguiling and contradictory figure at the center of (T)ERROR, is in a precarious position. While the initial credits roll over an otherwise black screen, we’re listening in as filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe have arrived to interview Torres with cameras in tow, much to their subject’s consternation. “So what’s going on now?” Torres asks over Cabral’s objections. “I told you I don’t want my face in this shit” he exclaims, nearly backing out of the project before it’s even begun. We are then treated to our first image of the man, decked out in a chef’s hat and apron in a local community school cafeteria kitchen, smiling for the very same cameras. Immediately we’re led to ponder: what does this unassuming nobody have to hide from those that might know his face “all over Brooklyn and Harlem?”
The eventual answer is a lot. A career informant for the FBI in their so-called war on terror, Torres is at turns fascinating and infuriating, full of both righteous defense of his myriad betrayals and judgment against those he is feebly paid to betray. The filmmakers, unbeknownst to the Bureau, join Torres on his most recent undercover assignment in Pittsburgh as he attempts to cajole a local American Muslim into incriminating himself as a terrorist against the US on their behalf.
Torres’ POI (Person of Interest) is a young white man that has christened himself Khalifah and posts anti-government and pro-bin Laden rants, as well as pictures of himself firing automatic rifles at a gun range, on Facebook. Torres justifies targeting Khalifah as a “bad Muslim,” due primarily to a few instances of petty thievery, while simultaneously excusing his own constant imbibing of marijuana and beer and unleashing his short temper at the filmmakers when their questions push him into uncomfortable territory (namely his true motivations and a long history of betrayal and hypocrisy).
From here, (T)ERROR begins to investigate how Torres got here, from his roots in Harlem’s Black Panther Party, upon which Torres denies ever having informed, (much to the film’s obvious skepticism), through his experiences in Bed-Stuy’s Muslim community in the 80’s, and the events, both pre- and post 9/11, that culminated in the assignment that forced him into witness protection where we were introduced to him at the start. The more we learn, the more Torres’ insistence of his own righteousness becomes suspect.
Every shot of the film feels stolen, as if Cabral and Sutcliffe had to capture their footage by spying on the spy. Images of Torres are frequently out of focus, suggesting a slippery and unknowable nature. The FBI agents pushing Torres and Khalifa to collision are never seen but their detached presence can be felt, not only through text message conversations helpfully printed on the screen, but in every frame as each character, including the target and individuals from Torres’ past who are interviewed in order to fill in his backstory, succumbs to paranoia in the shadow of the Bureau’s relentless campaign. The filmmakers, as well as the audience, are struggling to empathize with Torres and find redemption in his actions right up to the film’s midpoint when the filmmakers take a shocking risk that turns the entire narrative upside down.
From that point on, the film finds itself in a real life version of the bumbling spy genre played tragically straight. Ultimately, (T)ERROR is an all-encompassing and dramatically effective indictment: of the government, of a colluding media, of a complacent citizenry that willingly prizes security over liberty, and the all consuming power of one man’s deadly capacity for self-delusion.