(T) ERROR [London Film Festival]

PrintE-mail Written by Peter Turner

“I don't like the word informant”. Ex-member of the Black Panthers and current FBI informant Saeed ‘Shariff’ Torres may not like the label, but it certainly sticks. Employed by the Feds to gather intel on his fellow Muslims, Saeed is a fascinating figure who is filmed in Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s documentary as a way to perhaps appease some of his repressed guilt over his actions, but also expose the government's suspect methods of spying on the public.

(T)error is an absolutely gripping documentary, tense thriller and farcical spy parody all rolled into one. The fact that it's all true beggars belief; it’s laughable even, but there is also tragedy at its core. It's mostly Saeed's story; a 63-year-old father employed to be an undercover agent for the government, attempting to befriend those who are suspected of having the potential to engage in domestic terrorism. (T)error joins Saeed as he leaves his beloved son to go and spy on Muslim convert Khalifa who has been spouting off on social media about how much he hates the American government and wishes to die like a martyr.

The operation took place in Pittsburgh 2011, with Saeed worming his way into Khalifa’s inner circle, all the while trying to gauge his potential for dangerous action. Is he just a Facebook loudmouth keyboard warrior, or could he be a serious threat to national security? Things get really interesting when the documentary makers decide to make contact with suspect Khalifa without informant Saeed, or the FBI's knowledge. 

(T)error is an absolutely fascinating exploration of the ethics of homeland security, but also documentary making itself. At first, when Saeed is the grumpy subject who reluctantly spies to make money, but all he really wants to do is smoke joints, bake cakes and spend time with his son, (T)error is fairly straightforward. The nervy, handheld camerawork emphasises the caution with which spying must be carried out and there is a sense of mild danger in what Saeed does. His back-story is also filled in, to make him a deeply flawed, but incredibly interesting character.

It's only when we hear more from those who Saeed has hurt, that the real complexities of his actions become clear. Likewise, the brave, but morally dubious decision for the documentary makers to do some investigating of their own, particularly with regards to Khalifa turn (T)error into a far more concerning tale of contrived cases and potentially tragic twists and turns. Saeed remains the real tragedy; caught in a cruel game where he is just a pawn who simple believes that, 'if you're making Islam look bad, you gotta go'.

Unsurprisingly, the FBI are not involved as they appear to be making stupid mistakes and using people like Saeed with little regard for the consequences. Ultimately, it would have added a whole other layer of intrigue to get their point of view as (T)error slightly over-simplifies the idea of who is right and wrong by the end. Still, it’s a riveting look below the surface of law enforcement; a real life spy thriller where the characters are as complex as the ethical decisions they are engaged with. (T)errific.


Expected Rating: 6 out of 10
Actual Rating:


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