'(T)ERROR': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A journalistic coup results in a useful but not spellbinding doc

Filmmakers watch an FBI terror investigation. The FBI doesn't know they're being watched.

A real-time look at the FBI's use of confidential informants in the pursuit of terrorists, Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe's (T)ERROR follows Saeed "Shariff" Torres, an ex-convict who claims to have at one point made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year sidling up to Muslims accused of pro-terrorism leanings. The filmmakers' access is remarkable, and they eventually compound the film's novelty in an exciting way (spoilers below). But claims that this film opens our eyes to unknown practices are exaggerated. The use of informants who coax targets into plotting illegal acts has been the focus of docs like Better This World; in Muslim communities specifically, last year's enraging HBO doc The Newburgh Sting was hardly low-profile. Both films were more dramatic and ire-raising than this one, which deserves exposure but may struggle to get it.

Shariff, as he refers to himself on the job, is a lonely man, having alienated one community of Muslim friends in Brooklyn by helping convict jazz bassist Tarik Shah for talking (and evidently doing nothing more than that) about training members of Al Qaeda. Cabral met Shariff in 2002; three years later he volunteered to her that he was an FBI informant. Eventually, he agreed to let her and Sutcliffe film details of his work without the FBI's knowledge.

For the most part, that consists of us watching Shariff sit around a rented Pittsburgh home as he exchanges texts with his FBI handler. He's told to befriend Khalifah Al-Akili, a white Muslim convert who has publicly made pro-terrorist statements. (Attention wannabe jihadis: Facebook isn't the smartest place to praise Osama bin Laden.)

This is not the most cinematically engaging material in the world. But then, after Shariff and his bosses are clumsy in trying to get Khalifah to shift from words to deeds, he goes public with suspicions that the FBI has targeted him. Using that as a pretext (here's that spoiler), Cabral and Sutcliffe go meet Khalifah. Soon they're filming both hunter and prey, with neither of them (or, evidently, the FBI) knowing the other is being interviewed.

That's a fairly delicious scenario, but even so, the film never really catches fire, largely because this target wised up before he could find himself "planning" any terrorist actions. Eagle-eyed viewers who've seen Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's Newburgh Sting may note that the government informant who arguably entrapped the Newburgh Four in 2009, Shahed Hussain, is the same man the FBI and Shariff were trying to set up with Khalifah. In Shariff and Khalifah, the film has two interesting character studies on the sidelines of the so-called war on terror; any film that could get this kind of access with Hussain would be a must-see.


Production company: Stories Seldom Seen LLC

Directors: Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe

Producers: Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe, Christopher St. John

Executive producers: Eugene Jarecki, Nick Fraser, Sally Jo Fifer

Directors of photography: Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe

Editors: Laura Minnear, Jean-Philippe Boucicaut

Music: Robert Miller

Sales: Tristen Tuckfield, CAA

No rating, 93 minutes