From Tribeca’s estimable documentary lineup, Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR was at the tippity top of my to-see list—and the film did not disappoint. Following FBI informant Saeed Torres as he’s dispatched to Pittsburgh for the purposes of slowly winning over and entrapping a jihadist sympathizer, the doc—which plays at the festival on April 23 and 24, New Jersey’s Montclair Film Festival in early May, and New York’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in June, and is currently without distribution—is as much a concurrent journalistic coup as it is a riveting moviegoing experience. It’s beyond-commonplace to say a nonfiction film will live or die on the strength of its “characters”—which is to say, the access forged by the filmmakers and their onscreen participants. But good luck imagining a bigger get than Cabral and Sutcliffe’s, which started when the former lived upstairs from Torres in Harlem, utterly unaware of his double-agent status. As she explained to me: “He was living on the ground level of a three-floor brownstone; I was on the top floor. Something told me this man was very intriguing—I would smell pot, I would hear James Brown and Gil-Scott Heron, I could tell he was an old man trapped in another time. My instinct was, you should try and get to know him.”
Cabral and Torres hit it off; he told her he worked for the Legal Aid Society, and she saw him leave the brownstone every day dressed in suit and tie. “He always had ready access to cash, he’d go pick up a thousand dollars at the corner and give it to people, he always had a lot of drugs—pounds of marijuana, pounds of cocaine—and two cellphones. I was in school, I wasn’t trying to put any of the pieces together.” Eventually, Torres introduced Cabral to a jazz bassist named Tarik Shah, only to disappear shortly thereafter. “There was no furniture—no FOR RENT sign, no indication of any kind that anyone had ever lived there. I get a call from him and he tells me, ‘If anyone comes looking for me, don’t give them any information—get their information for me!’” Later that summer, Cabral visited Torres in South Carolina, where he disclosed to her for the first time that he was an FBI informant working on counterterrorism cases. The day Torres moved out, Shah—a bookseller, freelance martial arts instructor and alleged terrorist sympathizer—was arrested on charges of conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda.
Sutcliffe’s prior film Adama followed a sixteen-year-old girl identified as a potential terrorist by the FBI; she was held in a maximum-security prison for six weeks before her father was deported, and she was subsequently saddled with an ankle bracelet and FBI-imposed curfew. “I spent six years filming her and her family going through this process,” Sutcliffe told me, “and at the same time I’m learning more and more about these absurd counterterrorism cases. Going to the trials and noticing how many of them are built on informants—someone going in, becoming friends with someone, manipulating them and encouraging them to get ‘involved’ in some sort of plot. It’s a fascinating story: what kind of double-consciousness are these informants operating under?” Following that film (available in its 55-minute entirety on Sutcliffe’s Vimeo page), Sutcliffe and Cabral set about developing what would become (T)ERROR.
“When David told me he wanted to make a film about these programs,” Cabral said, “that’s the first time I felt comfortable enough to share that I actually knew an informant.” In the beginning, the filmmakers even considered a version of the film made without Torres’ face: “His greatest fears were, one: The government would know what he was doing, and two: He was afraid of repercussions from the people whose lives he’s kind of disrupted. Our argument was, ‘This is your swan song—there’s no way you’re gonna continue working with the FBI after this film comes out.’ The reason he even agreed to do it was, after the Tarik Shah case, people identified him in court. He was exposed—and that’s when he became less valuable to the FBI.”
Torres ultimately appears a man haunted by phantoms of normalcy, whose life trajectory is dotted with bad decisions (left largely unexplained in the film) and agonizing compromises. (When Cabral asks him when he was first approached by the FBI, Torres spits back: “They ‘approached’ me when they arrested me!”) In terms of managing audience sympathies, Cabral describes the film’s portrayal of Torres as a hard juggle: “It was important to offer that context of his past, so you could see where he started and where he’s ended up. The tragedy of this man when he was young: He had just come back from Vietnam, comes into Harlem, in the throes of revolution, and finds his way into the Black Panther party. At one point, he was very anti-American, committed to destroying the system, finding a new way… So to go from that to working wholeheartedly on behalf of the government, being a foot soldier in the war on terror?”
Torres comes off ostensibly proud of his contributions to national security and yet exasperated by his handlers’ blundering strategy, repeatedly insisting that his latest target, a portly white Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili, is utterly harmless. Torres is seen following text-message prompts from his FBI handlers in subsequent texts to Khalifah, but soon grows overbearing and—in what almost appears to be a social media-mediated generational misstep—extends an over-solicitous hand to Khalifah. But the fundamental plot twist takes place behind the camera: Following a Facebook post wherein Khalifah suspects the FBI is following him, Cabral and Sutcliffe begin filming interviews with both Khalifah and Torres, each party unaware the other is participating in the same documentary.
Cabral describes the in-retrospect editing process as decisive in making the film what it is today. “It was important to us not to villainize Torres; he’s someone different to each target, and so it’s important to capture the variety of his characters, the fact he can shift at any moment. To understand Khalifah’s case, you need the charisma of the informant that enables him to get in the car, to have these months of conversations with this man. Khalifah’s not a crazy person; there’s something about Saeed that’s appealing when he’s working. That’s his job: get you to confess, or participate in criminal activity.” Sutcliffe agrees: “A lot of credit goes to our editor for her commitment to preserving and structuring our film so we never lost sight of Torres. She was fully aware that once we meet Khalifah and hear his version of events, the audience is gonna turn on Saeed. And to mitigate that reversal, we continued to show both men as pawns in the same system. It’s not always a conscious process—you develop a feeling for what makes the most sense for the story.”
“Typically,” Cabral says, “the end of the road for FBI informants is the Witness Protection Program. As someone who’s worked for them for 25 years, that was offered to him, to change his identity and move to an undisclosed location, under the radar. I think for him, going on the record and exposing himself is the antithesis of Witness Protection. It is offering him a new road…Now that his story is out there, he’s hoping there’ll maybe be interest in a book deal, things like that.” So does that mean Saeed is comfortable in the spotlight? According to Cabral, “He’s as socially isolated as the film portrays. So I think part of this was like therapy: He honestly enjoyed talking to us because he wants to tell his story. It’s also therapeutic because he doesn’t really have that opportunity.” Asked how he was possibly expected to preserve neutrality, Sutcliffe notes with a laugh: “The only time I felt like Torres was asking our opinion was when he asked if we thought the film would do well.”