Sundance ’15: “(T)error” tags along on FBI sting operation

Realscreen talks to directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe about the secretive shoot - and fundraising process - for (T)error (pictured), which follows an FBI counter-terrorism operation from the perspective of an informant.
January 28, 2015

(T)error (pictured) follows an FBI counter-terrorism operation from the perspective of an informant. Ahead of the doc’s world premiere at Sundance last weekend, realscreen spoke to directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe about their secretive shoot – and fundraising process. 

As Citizenfour continues to rack up awards and accolades, another documentary is angling to impact the debate around surveillance in the United States.

Directed by Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, (T)error (pictured) follows an FBI informant during a seven-month counter-terrorism sting.

The film, which world premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition program at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, was backed by PBS funding arm ITVS and BBC doc strand ‘Storyville,’ and supported by doc-makers Eugene Jarecki and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras, who served as project adviser and creative consultant respectively.

Much like Poitras’s Oscar-nominated documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, (T)error gives an insider’s point of view on the legal and moral ramifications of the surveillance tactics employed by the U.S. government in the years since the 9/11 terror attacks.

The directors document an operation as it unfolds in real time from the perspective of a 63-year-old Muslim man who goes by the name Shariff, a curmudgeonly former Black Panther and career criminal who cut a deal for early prison release by agreeing to do undercover work for the FBI. Without telling his superiors, he allows Cabral and Sutcliffe to film an operation in Pittsburgh against white Muslim convert named Khalifah.

Sociopaths make the best informants, we are told in the film, because they have no qualms befriending suspects and ratting them out to authorities, an assertion Shariff does not dispute in (T)error. “I don’t have no feelings for them,” he says of his targets. “You makin’ Islam look bad, you gotta go.”

Despite his devotion to Islam, Shariff is also a pariah among Muslims in the Bronx thanks to his role in the arrest of Tarik Shah, a martial artist and respected jazz bassist who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2005 on charges of supporting terrorism.

Cabral met Shariff 10 years ago when she was a studying journalism at Columbia University in New York City. They were neighbors in the same building and one day he vanished abruptly. He later called her frantically and asked her to tell him if anyone came around looking for information. When she pressed him further, he confessed his vocation. Appalled but intrigued, she maintained monthly contact with him for the next decade.

The idea for (T)error took shape when Sutcliffe, whom she met while teaching film to high schoolers in Harlem, mentioned that one of his students, Adama Bah, was arrested and accused of being a potential suicide bomber.

While making the short film Adama, he theorized that the FBI uses informants to contrive domestic terrorism cases, effectively criminalizing first-amendment protected speech in the process.

“I thought it was incredibly problematic on a political level, and incredibly fascinating on a dramatic level,” Sutclifffe told realscreen, talking from Park City, Utah. “I just happened to mention offhandedly to Lyric, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could find an informant and make a film about him?’ She said, ‘funny you should say that because I know an informant.’”

“Usually I would never confess to anyone that I had an FBI informant in my life,” added Cabral. “Had David not said this would be a good topic for a film, I probably would have been following him once a month for a long time.”

The pair is looking to secure theatrical, international and VOD distribution at Sundance. Once the film is released, they will launch an awareness campaign in partnership with civil rights activists and organizations such as the Center for Constitutional Rights around the issues raised in the film: racial profiling, Islamophobia and freedom of religion.

(T)error directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe.

What was it like making a movie about a sting operation unbeknownst to the FBI?
David Felix Sutcliffe: Throughout it all we had this low-grade paranoia. We had no idea how they would respond or what they would do to respond. We reached out to legal experts and said what are the boundaries? What will get us in trouble and what is safe territory? We had very clear guidance right from the start so we felt relatively comfortable and secure knowing what the parameters were.

At the same time, you never know what’s going to happen. While making the film, we had to put it in the back of our minds.

We didn’t want this to be about our own perspective of the case, of the story, of the characters or of the issues. [The FBI's reaction] definitely figured into finishing the film when we gave the film a thorough legal vetting.

What was the vetting process like and are you anticipating any issues?
Lyric R. Cabral: The documentary features a lot of communications from the FBI. We had to fight for our legal right to use those. We went to the highest profile experts such as Michael Ratner, who is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights – people had to write legal opinions that these materials were legally gathered and in the public interest that they be included in the film.

Has the FBI seen the film or responded to it?
DFS: We reached out to them some time ago and haven’t heard anything.
LRS: Tomorrow [January 24] is our first public screening – our world premiere – so they may be in the audience.
DFS: They may have hacked our emails and gotten access to the screener.
[Editor's note: there is nothing to suggest this has happened to date]

Given the secretive nature of the project, how did you raise funding?
DFS: We had a lot of issues trying to correspond with funders in the beginning. We said: “We’ve never talked to you about this project and we can’t talk about it on the phone. If we email you about it, we have to send it from alternate email addresses.”

LRC: We felt public television was the most appropriate home to reach the widest audience for this story. We also felt that public television would be a way of isolating us from the government because public television has been the independent voice to filmmakers who are offering critiques to the government narrative. So we hope our public television support will buttress the film against any potential critiques the FBI may raise.

What challenges did you encounter during production?
LRC: There were boundaries of what we could not film. There were certain things in the interest of national security that he could not divulge to us. For example, he let us have FBI text messages but not the number. So he did have boundaries, but we had a very trusting relationship. I really wholeheartedly trusted that the information that he was sharing was information that he could share. I think he understood that we would not judge him or impose our political opinions on the story, but would let audiences formulate their own opinions about what type of man he is.

How do think about cinematic style when you are shooting in covert scenarios?
DFS: Lyric and I are journalists. We want to hold up the highest standards of journalism but we’re also artists. We love images. We love cinema and we wanted the film to capture what we were feeling at that time: feelings of paranoia and being chased.

LRC: It was about giving the audience the perception of surveillance and what it feels like to be spied upon. We’re spying on the informant while he’s spying on the target. We’re hoping the cinematography really brings the audience into that experience.

The film touches on sensitive and timely issues such as racial profiling. What responses have you had to the film thus far?
DFS: We’ve shown this film to some in the Muslim community, the informant Shariff and Marlene, the mother of one of the people he sent up [Tarik Shah], and everyone has a very strong response to the film - a very positive response. There are a number of activists who have been working on this issue for a long time who said: ‘I’m confused. I don’t know how I feel right now.’ That’s an important take away. We want to unsettle people and really shake up people’s preconceptions about the war on terror, Islamophobia, and the FBI’s use of informants.

  • (T)error next screens at the Sundance Film Festival on January 29 at Prospector Square Theatre, on January 30 at Temple Theatre and on January 31 at Broadway Centre Cinema 6.
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